Asbestos Safety

According to Safe Work Australia, asbestos was once used in Australia in more than 3,000 different products including fibro, flue pipes, drains, roofs, gutters, brakes, clutches, and gaskets.

The most common way for asbestos fibres to enter the body is through breathing or ingestion. Asbestos containing material is not generally considered to be harmful unless it is releasing dust or fibres into the air where they can be inhaled or ingested. Many of the fibres will become trapped in the mucous membranes of the nose and throat where they can then be removed, but some may pass deep into the lungs, or, if swallowed, into the digestive tract. Once they are trapped in the body, the fibres can cause health problems.

Asbestos is most hazardous when it is friable, meaning that the asbestos is easily crumbled by hand, releasing fibres into the air. Sprayed on asbestos insulation is highly friable whereas asbestos floor tiles are not. Asbestos-containing ceiling tiles, floor tiles, undamaged laboratory cabinet tops, shingles, fire doors, siding shingles, etc. will not release asbestos fibres unless they are disturbed or damaged in some way. If an asbestos ceiling tile is drilled or broken, for example, it may release fibres into the air. If it is left alone and not disturbed, it will not.

Damage and deterioration will increase the friability of asbestos-containing materials. Water damage, continual vibration, aging, and physical impact such as drilling, grinding, buffing, cutting, sawing, or striking can break the materials down making fibre release more likely.

Asbestos becomes a health risk when its fibres are released into the air and breathed in or ingested. Because it is so hard to destroy asbestos fibres, the body cannot break them down or remove them once they are lodged in lung or body tissues. Breathing in or ingesting asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Evidence also suggests that cancers in the oesophagus, larynx, oral cavity, stomach, colon, and kidney may be caused by ingesting asbestos.

According to Safe Work Australia, the risk of contracting these diseases increases with the number of fibres inhaled; the risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibres is greater if you smoke; and those who get health problems from inhaling asbestos have usually been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time and the symptoms do not usually appear until 20 to 30 years after initial exposure.

Also, according to Safe Work Australia, a total ban on asbestos came into effect in Australia on 31 December 2003. It is illegal to make it, use it or import it from another country. Workers must not handle asbestos unless they have been trained and hold a licence that is current and appropriate for the type of work being done.

What is Asbestos

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral and can typically be found in rock, sediment, or soil. It has strong fibres that are heat resistant and have good insulating properties. You cannot see asbestos fibres with the naked eye and because they are very light, they can be blown long distances by the wind. Because of its properties, which are described as being either non-friable or friable, asbestos was seen as being very useful for building products.

Asbestos Awareness

It is important to raise asbestos awareness of how to work safely with asbestos and know your responsibilities under the law. If you manage, or are in control of, a workplace, you have a responsibility to protect anyone that works with asbestos.

Managing the risks associated with Asbestos

Managing the risks associated with asbestos involves:

  • identifying asbestos and asbestos containing material at the workplace and recording this in an asbestos register
  • assessing the risk of exposure to airborne asbestos
  • eliminating or minimising the risks associated with asbestos by implementing control measures
  • reviewing control measures to make sure they are effective.

Asbestos Register

If you manage or control a workplace, it is your responsibility to ensure an asbestos register is prepared, maintained, and kept at the workplace. An asbestos register is a document that lists all identified—or assumed—asbestos in a workplace.

Asbestos Management Plan

A person who has management or control of the workplace must ensure that an asbestos management plan is prepared if asbestos has been identified.

Choosing the best Control Measure

You should consider the following when choosing the most appropriate control measure:

  • Eliminating the risk, for example removing the asbestos.
  • Substituting or isolating the risk or applying engineering controls, for example enclosing, encapsulating, sealing, or using certain tools, using administrative controls, for example safe work practices.
  • Using Personal Protective Equipment.

Removing Asbestos

Unless you are removing less than 10 square metres of non-friable asbestos, you must be licensed to remove asbestos. If you are removing less than 10 square metres of non-friable asbestos, it is still recommended that you engage a licensed removalist and undertake asbestos awareness training.

Training and Licensing

Anyone who removes asbestos is required to be appropriately trained and to hold the relevant licence.

Health monitoring of workers

Businesses must provide and pay for health monitoring for all those working with, or exposed to, asbestos.

Work Health and Safety duties

The model WHS Regulations set out a framework for managing asbestos materials in workplaces and cover:

  • training all workers who might come into contact with asbestos
  • naturally occurring asbestos
  • removing asbestos
  • licensing and competency requirements for asbestos removalists and assessors.

Model Code of Practice

The model Code of Practice: How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace has information on identifying asbestos, creating an asbestos register and managing the risks of asbestos in the workplace.

Managing importation of Asbestos into Australia

Despite being a prohibited import in Australia, goods containing asbestos are still being located at the Australian border and in Australian workplaces.

Prohibited Asbestos at a Workplace

The model WHS Act has been amended to ensure WHS regulators have appropriate powers to deal with asbestos fixed or installed in a workplace after the prohibition on asbestos came into effect on 31 December 2003. 

Rapid Response Protocol

The Rapid Response Protocol has been developed by the Heads of Workplace Safety Authorities.

The Protocol helps government agencies work cooperatively and efficiently across jurisdictions and portfolios when imported products have been identified as containing asbestos, and there is concern they may cross or have crossed state borders.

The Protocol makes sure all government agencies with an interest in a particular incident share pertinent information, and it enables a nationally uniform compliance and enforcement approach for future incidents.

Further advice

SWA is not a regulator and cannot advise you about asbestos laws in your jurisdiction. If you need help, please contact your state or territory work health and safety authority.

Relevant Links

Safe Work Australia – Asbestos

Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency

Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency – Research & Publications


Information provided in the text above is general in nature and does not consider your specific Asbestos Management needs and requirements. The information is not professional advice and should not be treated as such. You must not rely on the information in the text above as an alternative to professional advice. If you have specific questions relating to this subject, we strongly recommend that you seek independent professional Asbestos Management advice.