A public works employee with the U.S. Navy removes asbestos ceiling materials at a Naval Base in California.

‘Asbestos kills’: WorkSafeBC looks to raise awareness

WorkSafe BC is launching an awareness campaign around the deadly construction material

Al Johnson, vice-president of prevention field services for WorkSafe BC, says people need to be more aware of the dangers of asbestos, and has launched an awareness campaign in support of that message.

WorkSafe BC recently conducted a survey of more than 800 British Columbians, which it says confirms its suspicion that there is a lack of public awareness about the deadly building material.

Only half of those surveyed (51 per cent) believe homeowners are responsible for making sure testing for asbestos is conducted before undertaking home renovations and only about one-third of those surveyed who have renovated a home built before 1990 tested for the substance before they did so.

“Asbestos kills,” Johnson says, simply.

“The relatively low level of awareness by homeowners regarding the dangers posed by asbestos means workers and even family members can potentially be put at risk. Renovations and demolitions of older properties continue at a very high rate and homeowners need to be informed about the dangerous nature of asbestos and how to protect workers and themselves.”

According to WorkSafe, asbestos can be found in more than 3,000 different building materials used prior to 1990, including linoleum, wall board, filling compound, textured ceilings, insulation and wiring.

This asbestos can be released into the air when these materials are drilled, sawed, sanded or broken up during a renovation or demolition and can cause serious health issues for those who inhale it.

Roy Ashdown, who owns local construction company Ashdown Construction, says it needs to be something that stays “top-of-mind.”

“It’s something we run into fairly often, especially doing renovations,” Ashdown says.

“If you’re in any building built pre-1990, you have to have the drywall tested before you start anything. Some people kind of poo-poo it and think it’s not really a big deal.

“I was probably in that same camp at one time, because I worked with that stuff myself for years, and I never developed mesothelioma [a rare, aggressive form of cancer that primarily develops in the lining of the lungs or abdomen]. But there’s a whole school of thought that says even one fibre of asbestos is too much.”

Ashdown says he recently put all of his employees through asbestos abatement training and developed his own protocol and guidelines they have to follow, which other companies do, as well, but the problem isn’t so much in knowing what to do when you encounter it, it’s the cost associated with dealing with the toxic material.

Part of that additional cost is disposal.

Because there are very few landfills or disposal facilities that will take asbestos, it often has to be transported long distances after it’s removed.

But the removal itself isn’t as simple as just pulling it out and throwing it in a rented dumpster, either.

Basically, what you have to do, Ashdown says, is gear everyone up with custom-fit respirators containing expensive filters, disposable coveralls and gloves, isolate the area you’re working in with an air-tight seal, keeping negative air flow throughout the area and install and use the numerous washing stations placed throughout the site.

“It’s actually quite the protocol,” Ashdown says. “It looks like overkill, but it’s just what’s required.

“The really sad part is that a lot of people do their own renovations, and they have no idea,” Ashdown continues.

“They don’t know what they’re dealing with,” and they really should look into it, because WorkSafe’s numbers show that between 1996 and 2016, 1,016 work-related deaths have been associated with asbestos exposure, 62 per cent of which were due to mesothelioma.

And those are only ones that were “workplace” related.

Check out worksafebc.com, hiddenkiller.ca or thinkasbestos.com for more resources on how to know if there may be asbestos in your home or access other resources about how to stay safe around the substance.