A Deadly Legacy
By Jeff Cottrill
The federal government is moving towards a full ban on asbestos and asbestos-containing products by the end of 2017. The ban would align Canada with more than 50 other countries.
According to OCRC director Paul Demers, corporate subsidies kept the asbestos industry alive in Canada well into the 21st century. “Around six, seven years ago is really where we started to see some changes,” Demers says, noting that a mix of public opinion and the support of national organizations eventually moved Canada towards a full ban.
“Our love affair with asbestos really goes back thousands of years,” says Meghan Kelly, a training specialist with Pinchin Ltd. in Mississauga. Asbestos was used throughout most of the 20th century in many products, including roofing, insulation, flooring, plastics, textiles and cement pipes. Manufacturers appreciated the material for its resistance to heat, tensile strength, insulation and friction qualities. Even well after the 1970s, when the hazards became better known, Canada continued mining it in Quebec.
“The realistic list of types of asbestos within materials that can be present in buildings is shockingly long,” Kelly says, noting a “pretty reasonable” level of awareness amongst building owners, property managers and employers. But small-scale commercial enterprises tend to be less compliant with asbestos regulation, in Pinchin’s experience.
The biggest gap in asbestos awareness, she says, is in residential construction. Homeowners and contractors often display a considerable lack of knowledge and compliance, allowing workers to remove asbestos-containing materials from houses without sufficient training, especially when they want jobs done quickly. Even straightening a popcorn ceiling can be risky. “The texture finish of that popcorn ceiling could contain asbestos,” Kelly cautions.
A HOUSE CONTAMINATED
Asbestos-related disease remains the top cause of occupational fatalities in British Columbia, with 584 workers in the province having lost their lives to asbestos-related illness from 2006 to 2015, according to WorkSafeBC, which launched an asbestos awareness campaign last fall.
Al Johnson, the organization’s vice president of prevention services, says the goal is to keep more than 15,000 asbestos, demolition and general contractors in the province aware of their responsibilities regarding potential asbestos exposure. “The message is really twofold for them,” Johnson says. The first message is to stop exposing construction workers to asbestos, and the second message is to protect the reputation of one’s contracting business.
Johnson says WorkSafeBC has a dedicated inspection team that looks at contractors doing this type of work and issues stop-work orders and penalties when non-compliance occurs. Fallout from non-compliance could include lost work hours, missed deadlines, cancelled projects and even rejection by potential clients due to a poor safety record.
As for managing asbestos risk prior to starting work, the first step is to have a qualified person enter the structure and identify any materials that may contain asbestos. An asbestosabatement contractor must remove these materials and dispose of them safely by following proper procedures. But many contractors do not want to foot the extra costs of identifying and removing asbestos prior to demolition.
“Some contractors are cutting corners,” Johnson says. In the first half of 2017 alone, WorkSafeBC issued about 450 orders, including around 60 stop-work orders to contractors who were not dealing with asbestos the right way, resulting in more than 30 penalties.
Ontario’s Ministry of Labour requires a construction employer to notify workers if they will be working in proximity to asbestos-containing materials, even if there is no intention to disturb or remove them, says Marc Cousineau, an industrial hygienist with the Ministry in Toronto. “They have got to know the location of it, whether it is friable or not friable, if it is sprayed on.” The province’s regulations define asbestoscontaining materials as any material of which at least 0.5 per cent is asbestos by dry weight. Asbestos fibres must be no bigger than five microns long and three microns wide to be considered dangerous.
One issue that will remain after the ban kicks in is how much asbestos is still out there in buildings. While asbestoscontaining materials in a building can be harmless when encased or managed properly, Kelly notes that accidental disturbances and improper work continue to occur. “Everybody’s part towards health and safety is to communicate, raise awareness, help enforce a lot of regulations and raise questions,” she says.
Jeff Cottrill is editor of canadian occupational health & safety news.