Case study: Asbestos removal in domestic demolition

This case study highlights the importance of having proper controls in place when dealing with asbestos during demolition of domestic buildings.

Background

In May 2018 WorkSafe Victoria (WorkSafe) received a report of suspected asbestos being removed from a residential property. WorkSafe Inspectors attended the property and observed two workers undertaking demolition work using hand tools. The workers were not wearing any personal protective equipment (PPE). An independent hygienist confirmed the building contained asbestos.

Asbestos can be exposed during demolition.

Figure 1: Demolition work can disturb asbestos, creating a risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibres.

The company was not a licenced asbestos removalist, no PPE was provided and none of the workers had training in the safe removal of asbestos.

The company pleaded guilty to failing to provide or maintain a workplace that was safe and without risks to health and failing to ensure that people other than employees were not exposed to risks to health.

The company was convicted and fined $20,000 and ordered to pay costs of $4,449.

Exposed asbestos fibres.

Figure 2: Incomplete removal of asbestos poses a risk to health because of exposed fibres which can become airborne.

Safety Issues

Exposure to airborne asbestos fibres may cause diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. Mesothelioma is fatal and incurable. Lung cancer and asbestosis are life-threatening and severely affect a person’s quality of life.

Strict safety requirements apply to asbestos removal work. Asbestos removal work must be performed by a licenced asbestos removalist, who has been appropriately trained and instructed to perform the removal work safely.

Unlicensed removal of limited amounts of non-friable asbestos is permitted under specific circumstances only.

Legal duties

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees (including independent contractors). Where the risk cannot be eliminated, it must be reduced so far as is reasonably practicable. Employers must also ensure that the conduct of their business does not endanger other people (including members of the public).

Employers, self-employed persons and persons who have management and control of a workplace also have specific duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) in relation to demolition of domestic buildings that contain asbestos. These include, but are not limited to:

  • ensuring that any asbestos removal work is performed in accordance with the requirements of the OHS Regulations
  • identifying any asbestos that is likely to be disturbed by proposed demolition or refurbishment works
    • If the proposed work is demolition work, you must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the asbestos is removed before demolition work commences.
    • If the proposed work is refurbishment work, you must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the asbestos is removed.
  • ensuring that demolition or refurbishment work does not commence until it has been determined whether asbestos is present. If there is uncertainty about the presence of asbestos, you must assume that asbestos is present and arrange for analysis of a sample
  • ensuring that any asbestos removal work is performed in accordance with the requirements of the OHS Regulations by an asbestos removal licence holder, or a person permitted under the OHS Regulations to perform limited asbestos removal work

Limited asbestos removal work

In limited circumstances, an employer or self-employed person can remove non-friable asbestos-containing material without a licence. Unlicensed removal of non-friable asbestos-containing material can only occur if:

  • the area of asbestos-containing material to be removed does not exceed 10 square metres in total; and
  • the total time taken to perform the asbestos removal work in any seven day period does not exceed one hour. This time period is cumulative for all employees carrying out unlicensed removal over a seven day period

If unlicensed asbestos removal work is carried out, employers and self-employed persons have a number of obligations under the OHS Regulations, including, but not limited to ensuring:

  • appropriate training of persons undertaking the removal is provided by the employer, and training records are retained
  • appropriate PPE is provided
  • appropriately placed signs and barricades are provided and used
  • decontamination facilities are provided for PPE and equipment
  • so far as is reasonably practicable, that the work is performed in a way that eliminates the release of airborne asbestos fibres and prevents contamination of surrounding areas
  • asbestos waste is appropriately contained and disposed of
  • medical examinations are performed if there is a risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibres in excess of one half of the asbestos exposure standard

To understand your obligations before undertaking unlicensed asbestos removal work, read the Removing asbestos in the workplace compliance code.