Inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers causes a number of health risks. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set standards for asbestos exposure limits that help reduce the ill effects and at times fatal effects of this mineral.
Asbestos is a class of minerals that appears naturally in fibrous form. In use since the 1800s, its use increased drastically from the 1940s right through the 80s.
Due to its properties of flexibility, strength, and heat/chemical resistance, it found extensive use in building material, roofing material, ship building material, and components used in the auto-manufacturing industry, etc.
Persons at maximum risk from these fibers are mine workers, and those living in close vicinity to these mines, construction site workers, those involved directly in ship building, house/building renovators, ship breakers, and those involved in the manufacture/servicing of auto clutch and brake assemblies.
Asbestos fibers are usually microscopic and are not visible to the naked eye. When inhaled constantly, they settle and get firmly lodged in the lungs. The effects of this come to notice after approximately 15 years and could take up to 40 years to surface. The most common health effects are asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
It was in the 1970s that the ill effects of asbestos inhalation were being noticed, and it was during this time that industrial standards were set by OSHA.
The use of this mineral in building material, ship building material, brake and clutch assemblies for the auto industry, and in the manufacture of pipes is almost non-existent today.
This does not mean that the risk of inhalation of these fibers is non-existent. It is still present in large amounts in previous constructions, tiles and roofing, old pipelines, ships that are broken for scrap, and in a host of other products. Miners face a big risk of fiber inhalation even today.
In order to maintain the health and safety of these workers and to help them from this constant threat, OSHA has constantly set standards for the permissible exposure limit (PEL).
In 1972, OSHA issued its first comprehensive standard, which regulated the PEL to an 8 hour, time-weighted average of 2 fibers per cc of air, having a maximum ceiling of 10 fibers at any given time. This standard came into full effect from mid-1976.
Regulations regarding the control of asbestos inhalation such as personal protective equipment, constant air monitoring, regular medical checkup, employee training regarding the health risks, and safety measures to be followed were also set and are followed to this day.
Due to increasing scientific evidence in the mid-80s relating to the carcinogenic properties of asbestos, it was felt that the 2 fibers per cc must be reduced so as to give maximum protection to the workers in such hazardous areas.
The previous regulations were scrapped and the PEL was reduced to an 8 hour, time-weighted average of 0.2 fibers per cc of air. Included were ways of reducing the presence of this mineral in the air using specific protective equipment, engineering controls, good work practices, specific training to workers regarding the risks, and strictly regulated areas.
Many industries became fully compliant with these standards, and in the mid-90s, a new standard was set that would help protect workers better. The new PEL was reduced to an 8 hour, time-weighted average of 0.1 fibers per cc of air. All the other regulations too were modified so as to attain these levels.
It has become a compulsion to all employers to provide training to employees regarding asbestos, all the hazards and health effects that it has, and all the latest equipment and rules to be followed to minimize them.
Ways to Reduce Risk
There are quite a few ways to maintain the minimum exposure level, reduce the risk at the workplace, and also prevent spreading the fibers outside the workplace.
Following are a few of these methods.
- While working in an area where the fibers are present, always wear the protective clothing provided by the employer.
- While leaving the hazard area, remove this clothing and change into your normal clothing in an area specified for this purpose.
- Use separate lockers for normal clothing and specialized protective clothing.
- Contaminated protective clothing should never be taken out of the work area except by authorized persons for the purpose of laundering or disposal.
- Employers must use air filtration systems in lunch rooms to keep it free of any fibers.
- Never enter the lunch room with your protective clothing on.
- Always wash your hands and face before entering the lunch room.
- Shower before you change into normal clothing.
- Never smoke, eat, drink, chew gum/tobacco, or apply cosmetics of any kind in an area that contains these fibers.
- Get physical checkups done at regular intervals.
- Where it is not possible to maintain the minimum levels, in addition to the engineering controls used, the employer must provide compliant respirators and clothing to all employees.
Given mentioned points where applicable will not only minimize the risks of asbestos inhalation for you, but also all those who you come into contact with outside the workplace.