When I was a plumber back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I didn’t have a clue how dangerous asbestos was. None of my plumber or electrician mates did either.
But it was everywhere. In factories, office blocks, and two out of every three houses built between World War II and the 1980s, and it’s still in them now.
I count myself lucky I’m not one of those thousands of Australian tradies who have died or had their health ruined by this stuff. The terrible thing about asbestos is that it’s a hidden killer. You can’t smell it, you can’t taste it, and you can’t see the microscopic fibres that get into your lungs and cause the damage.
That’s why it’s vital for every tradie, especially plumbers and electricians like you, to know the places where asbestos could be present. And here’s the bottom line. If you have any reason at all to believe there might be asbestos where you’re working, stop. Don’t risk it and don’t let your mates risk it either.
If you see something, say something. And remember, no one has the right to pressure you into working where asbestos might be present.
Okay. So where will you find asbestos? Unfortunately, it’s hiding in lots of places and in lots of different forms.
One of the most common is asbestos cement, which is a cement mixed with asbestos and compressed into different shapes. It’s a hard, grey material used in corrugated sheets on the roofs of industrial buildings, garages and sheds. It’s also found in wall cladding, downpipes and gutters.
‘LOOSE FILL ASBESTOS’
Loose fill asbestos was used to insulate industrial and domestic buildings, so it’s found in wall cavities and under floorboards. It’s usually blue/grey or white-ish in colour. And because it’s light and fluffy, it’s probably the most dangerous form of asbestos.
‘ASBESTOS IN LAGGING’
Because of its insulating properties, you’ll often find asbestos used as lagging around pipes and water heaters, something for plumbers to especially look out for. This kind of asbestos can be hard to spot, because it’s often painted.
‘ASBESTOS IN ELECTRICAL INSULATION]
Electricians need to take special care with electrical switchboard panels and meter panels. Those installed before 1990 will almost certainly have used asbestos as an insulator, and so will many that were built before 2004.
‘TEXTURED COATING ASBESTOS’
Asbestos was also used to provide a textured coating on ceilings and walls, sometimes known under trade names like Artex. This would originally have been white, but has often been painted over. So the thing to watch out for is the decorative finish.
‘ASBESTOS INSULATING BOARD’
Asbestos insulating board, or AIB, was commonly used for fireproofing, so can be found in partition walls, fire doors, lift shaft linings, ceiling tiles and the panels below windows. Unfortunately, like a lot of asbestos, this stuff can be hard to tell apart from non-asbestos materials. So if you’re not sure, stop and find out. Don’t chance it. Report it.
‘OTHER PLACES TO LOOK’
Other places this killer can be hiding is in asbestos floor tiles and carpet underlay. Another kind of asbestos, asbestos paper, was used for lining under tiles.
Asbestos composites are also common around toilet cisterns and toilet seats, window sills and bath panels. You should also keep an eye out for different kinds of asbestos in fire doors, street light control boxes, trench and pit covers and cable trenching.
As you can see, asbestos was once used just about everywhere, and it’s still in a lot of places where you might be working. Sawing, hammering, sanding or drilling into it, can send microfibers into the air and into your lungs. So let me say it again. If you have any reason to think there might be asbestos where you’re working, stop. And if there’s any problem, your union will always back you up.
Earl Setches Federal Secretary
CEPU Plumbing Division
No one has the right to make you work in unsafe conditions. No one. There are some basic steps you can take before starting any job. First you can ask if there’s a hazardous substance register for the site. You can also directly ask if there’s any asbestos on the site. And if you have any reason to suspect there might be any asbestos, stop. Don’t risk it. Someone has to prove it’s not asbestos. Until then it’s considered to be asbestos.
ATU National Secretary
If you think there may be asbestos in your workplace, speak out. Talk to your work mates about it. Talk to your union delegate or safety rep. Talk to your boss. Whatever you do, don’t just go ahead and do the job anyway. You can also call the safety regulator in your state, and you don’t have to give them your name.
And don’t worry that you might be wrong. Your life and your future health always comes first.
When I was a young bloke, I thought I could run through brick walls. But as I found out only too often, I wasn’t invulnerable, and neither are you. So never, ever take risks with asbestos.
Just when you should be earning a good income as an electrician, a plumber, enjoying life, raising a family, you could find yourself hooked up to an oxygen tank. No job. No future. Just slowly dying. I know I’m painting a pretty ugly picture, but that’s the way it is. So have another look at this DVD and take a close look at the different kinds of asbestos and where you might come across them.
And let me say it one more time. If you ever have any reason at all to think there might be asbestos where you’re working, stop. Don’t risk it and don’t let a mate risk it either.