A recent study indicates exposure to asbestos cement typically exceeds exposure limits in the U.S. Called “Exposure Hazards from Continuing Use and Removal of Asbestos Cement Products.” Researchers published their findings in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health.

Covering current uses of asbestos cement, the hard data shows that existing methods to protect workers remain woefully insufficient. Without stricter regulations regarding methods and improvements surrounding the use of asbestos protective clothing, workers are being placed in harm’s way.

What is Asbestos?

A naturally occurring fibrous mineral, asbestos is comprised of altered or chemically treated elements such as chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, and actinolite. As a commercial product, it possesses significant fiber strength and resistance to heat. These traits made it a top choice for manufacturers to integrate it into building materials and insulative products.

Often deployed as asbestos cement, it has a tendency to dry out and become brittle. When airborne particles make skin contact or are inhaled, workers may contract conditions including lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis, and pleural disease, among others. Until the 1980s, asbestos cement and other forms were routinely used in the following.

  • Insulation and Paint
  • Roofing Shingles and House Siding
  • Floor Tiles
  • Sound-Dampening Products
  • Fire Retardant Fabrics and Clothing
  • Automotive Parts
  • Water Pipe Casings
  • Heat Shields
  • Stoves and Furnaces

Although many of these uses have been eliminated in the U.S., Russia and Kazakhstan mine and export more than 80 percent of the world’s asbestos to 25 impoverished and middle-income countries. Nations such as India, China, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Thailand purchased 90 percent of worldwide asbestos materials. In 2021, output ran north of 1.2 million metric tons. Russia’s asbestos revenue topped $185 million in 2021 despite the fact that 60 countries took the prudent step to completely ban asbestos.

Based on the research of Perry Gottesfeld, who led the Exposure Hazards study, the average worker cutting and removing asbestos cement from pipes suffered exposure rates 50 times higher than the short-term constraints required by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.

Equally disturbing are the statistics that pointed to workers experiencing 24 times the OSHA limit when cutting corrugated roofing materials or asbestos-laced boards. Gottesfeld’s research highlights what many in the workplace health and safety sector have been advocating for—a total U.S. ban on asbestos.

What Workers Need to Know About Asbestos Cement Exposure

Between Russian mining operations and asbestos processing plants throughout India and Vietnam, among others, thousands of people come into unnecessary contact with the carcinogen. Given asbestos cement has been used in construction for more than a century, contractors continue to remove the health hazard as part of demolition, renovation, and decontamination projects.

There are a reported 600,000 miles of asbestos water pipes in the U.S. and Canada, each with a lifespan of approximately 50 years. Outdated pipes are commonly removed due to age, leaks, corrosion, and replaced with new asbestos-free lengths. However, the methods used in this process fall far short of OSHA guidelines.

What are OSHA Asbestos Exposure Limits?

One of the reasons OSHA and workplace safety advocates insist on the consistent and proper use of disposable asbestos protective clothing stems from the fact the carcinogen negatively impacts people from even short-term or intermittent exposure.

By contrast, a wide range of other hazardous materials require significant contact or long-term exposure to rise to the critical danger posed by asbestos. The stringent restrictions imposed by OSHA bear that conclusion out. This is the permissible exposure limits (PEL) for general and maritime industries.

  • General and Maritime Industry: The PEL rate in general construction and manufacturing has a time-weighted average limit (TWA) of 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of breathable air over eight hours. Air sampling must be averaged over 30-minute intervals while workers are on task. Short-term exposure rates are determined by the number of fibers per cubic centimeter during a 30-minute sample.

The health and safety organization sets the bar, perhaps, unrealistically high in terms of practical applications. Recent research demonstrates the occupational hazards associated with pipe fitting or sawing through asbestos materials exceeded the PEL rate by 86 percent. Some workers routinely experience rates 100 percent above the OSHA short-term limit.

Airborne Particle Reduction Methods Prove Ineffective

Aside from the use of disposable asbestos protective workwear, OSHA mandates contractors and other organizations to implement wetting methods. It insists wetting agents be deployed during the handling, cutting, cleanup, and removal to tamp down the PEL rate to an acceptable level. While well-meaning and, perhaps, one of the few tools that can minimize dust going airborne, the practical use of wetting agents has not necessarily proven successful.

That’s largely because minuscule particles must often settle to the ground before they can be soaked. Before gravity slowly draws them down, asbestos dust can settle on clothing, skin, or be inhaled should a worker remove the required breathing apparatus. It’s also not uncommon for flakes to enter the ears and eyes or cling to footwear. The latter results in asbestos inevitably finding its way into family vehicles and homes.

How Does Asbestos Cause Deadly Health Conditions

When an exposed worker inhales the particles, they are transported into the lungs. Like most foreign elements that enter the lungs, defense mechanisms are triggered. People typically cough up most of the fibers. But the few that bypass this mechanism lodge themselves in lung tissue or enter other systems. Asbestos may come to rest in a variety of organs, where it evolves into a malignancy over a number of years.

High concentrations of asbestos, over time, place workers at increased risk of fatal cancers, as well as conditions that significantly impact daily wellness and quality of life. Smokers and those with pre-existing conditions may be at greater risk of contracting asbestos-related ailments.

Prolonged exposure can also result in badly scarred lungs, a condition known as asbestosis. Health officials generally agree that even short-term asbestos exposure can have disastrous consequences. According to the Mesothelioma Center, approximately 39,000 Americans lose their lives annually as a result of asbestos exposure.

What PPE is Needed to Help Prevent Asbestos Exposure?

The EPA urges business leaders to follow safe workplace practices by utilizing various mechanisms to reduce the number of asbestos fibers released during manufacturing, construction, and remediation. These involve using tools with commercial-grade vacuuming systems and installing barriers to prevent airborne particles from drifting.

The federal agency also urges companies to avoid sawing or sanding asbestos surfaces whenever possible. Along with observing safety protocols, the following personal protective equipment and asbestos protective clothing inventories are necessary.

  • Coveralls: An industry-certified coverall has the ability to prevent particles from coming to rest on otherwise exposed skin areas. These include the forearms, hands, and neck regions. Disposable asbestos clothing should provide a seamless fit to ensure tiny fibers do not infiltrate the protective coverall.
  • Head Coverings: Dust can easily cling to head and facial hair unless they are fully covered. Outfits that handle a variety of construction and remediation projects may be well-served to maintain an inventory of disposable protective clothing with optional hoods. Leading asbestos protective clothing makers produce coveralls that hoods can be added to when necessary.
  • Respirator: Depending on the task and time needed for completion, a properly fit-tested respirator is a great option to prevent asbestos fiber inhalation.
  • PPE Accessories: Items such as breathable masks, gloves, goggles, shoe coverings, and other asbestos protective workwear accessories complete worker safety mandates.

Safety supervisors and company decision-makers are best served by creating an inventory of asbestos protective workwear that can be accessorized as needed. This strategy allows companies to deploy PPE resources based on the type of hazard in the environment. When asbestos is present, it’s critical to have a stockpile of industry-leading protective clothing available.