September 16, 2013
Asbestos still a threat, but a new tool cuts the danger
Up until the late 1980s in Canada, asbestos was put into about 10,000 building products, setting the stage for a raft of asbestos-related fatalities.
The mineral, known for its fire-proofing, insulating and strengthening properties, is still used today, but asbestos products are now regulated under Canada’s Hazardous Products Act.
At the Public Works Association of B.C.’s 2013 Technical Conference and Trade Show, taking place Sept. 16-18 in Nanaimo, a chartered builder with 16 years of experience dealing with hazardous materials, will lead the Asbestos Awareness workshop.
“There’s a bit of a time bomb going on,” said Jim Bagley, a senior project manager with Levelton Consultants in Courtenay, B.C.
Called the “hidden killer” because asbestos isn’t seen or smelled when inhaled into the lungs, its deleterious effects take 20 to 30 years to develop, Bagley said.
Which is why today, asbestos is responsible for more workplace fatalities than all other workplace risks, he said.
Of the 143 fatality claims accepted by WorkSafeBC in 2010, 75 were the result of occupational disease, with the majority attributed to asbestos exposure.
This trend is expected to continue for a number of years.
Recognizing the severe dangers facing workers who encounter asbestos, the B.C. Municipal Safety Association (BCMSA) is sponsoring the Asbestos Awareness workshop.
“Asbestos is everywhere” said Cathy Cook, the BCMSA’s executive director.
“Exposure could happen with something as simple as replacing a light switch.”
Asbestos is found in a wide variety of products including spray-applied fireproofing, mechanical insulation, shingles, linoleum, floor tiles, vermiculite, cement board and decorative coatings.
Trades most at risk for asbestos exposure include masons, bricklayers, roofers, tile setters, painters, demolition workers and drywallers.
“Municipal workers are exposed in a number of ways,” Cook said from her Langley office.
One ongoing problem is the dumping of drywall in ditches or on abandoned roads.
The junked drywall is most often removed by municipal workers, Cook said.
That drywall likely contains asbestos.
If the workers aren’t wearing protective gear, such as disposable coveralls and masks, they could inhale the microscopic fibres, Cook said.
Also impacting municipal and public works employees, are North America’s roughly 400,000 miles of asbestos concrete pipes, used to deliver drinking water and to remove waste water, Bagley said.
While one litre of water delivered by those pipes could have up to 300 million asbestos fibres, oddly, if they are ingested, they are not problematic.
It’s only when inhaled that they can cause three major, and usually fatal, diseases: lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
Actor Paul Newman died of mesothelioma, which is believed to have been caused by the asbestos-containing fire-proof suit he wore as a professional race car driver, Bagley said.
A major problem, related to Canada’s aging infrastructure, is that the miles and miles of asbestos pipes can become soft and degrade, depending on the geology, acidity and alkalinity of the soil, he said.
Some municipalities have assessed their pipes and know the pipes’ origin and construction.
Other jurisdictions operate in the dark.
To repair leaky asbestos pipes, a section may be cut or long lengths may be removed.
Pipes can be one inch thick and 20-24 inches in diameter.
Typically, “aggressive” treatments, which produce a dust laden with dangerous asbestos fibres are used instead of time-consuming, but safer, hand tools, Bagley said. One feature of Bagley’s presentation on Sept. 18, at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre, will be discussion about a new power tool being tested to cut through asbestos pipe.
Developed by Stanley Tools, the hydraulic chainsaw, with a continuous water supply, is being tested in Kelowna.
“It’s quite a pioneering trial,” Bagley said. “There have been very promising results.”
Fibre levels have been reduced with the chainsaw that sprays water to keep the fibres down. Testing will continue for a few more months. Bagley is optimistic that Canadian municipalities will realize the benefits of the tool.
Jeannette Austin, PWABC’s executive director, expects about 150 of the organization’s 400 members will attend the three-day technical conference and trade show.
Most of the delegates work for municipalities and are engineers or consultants, she said.
In addition to the Asbestos Awareness workshop, other topics being addressed include graffiti removal, pavement innovations, purchasing an electric vehicle, GPS fleet management, urban green landscapes, invasive species and underground utility locating.
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