Understand and manage asbestos in workplaces

This guidance is for persons who manage or control a workplace, employers, self-employed persons and employees in relation to asbestos and asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in the workplace.

About this guidance

This guidance includes information about:

  • Asbestos and asbestos containing materials.
  • Asbestos health risks.
  • Asbestos in the workplace.
  • Legal duties.

This guidance outlines who has legal duties at the workplace and what those duties include. For more detailed information regarding the management and removal of asbestos in the workplace, refer to:

Information on the key changes introduced by the Occupational Health and Safety  Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) can be found in Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017: Summary of changes.

This guidance contains material of a general nature only and is not to be used as a substitute for referring to the Compliance Codes, OHS Regulations or obtaining legal advice.

Asbestos

Asbestos is the name given to a group of fibrous silicate minerals that occur naturally in the environment.

Asbestos was commonly used in a wide variety of industrial, manufacturing, building and construction applications in Australia between the 1940s and late 1980s. It has been used in the manufacture of more than 3000 products because of its durability, fire resistance and excellent insulating properties.

The use of asbestos in building products was gradually phased out in Australia from the mid-1980s onwards, with the final ban on the manufacture, supply, use, reuse, import, transport, storage and sale of all forms of asbestos coming into force on 31 December 2003. Despite this ban, instances of asbestos illegally entering the country within imported products, such as building materials and vehicle components, continues to be an ongoing risk that requires vigilance within workplaces.

The 3 main types of asbestos used in commercial products are:

  • chrysotile (white asbestos)
  • crocidolite (blue asbestos)
  • amosite (brown asbestos)

Less common forms of asbestos include:

  • actinolite
  • anthophyllite
  • tremolite

Under the OHS Regulations, asbestos is defined as any material or object, whether natural or manufactured, that contains one or more of the mineral silicates listed above.

Where asbestos is affected by heat or chemicals or combined with other substances its colour and appearance can change.

There is no simple test to identify asbestos. If analysis is required, it must be done by an approved laboratory that is accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) or the scheme under which the laboratory was approved.

Asbestos-containing material

Asbestos-containing material (ACM) is any material or object that, as part of its design, contains one or more of the mineral silicates referred to above (other than plant in which asbestos is fixed or installed).

ACM is divided into 2 categories based on the physical properties and characteristics of the material. ACM categories are:

  • Friable.
  • Non-friable.

Friable ACM

Friable ACM refers to any ACM that when dry:

  • may be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to powder by hand pressure, or
  • as a result of a work process, becomes such that it may be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to powder by hand pressure

Examples of friable ACM include:

  • pipe lagging
  • fire retardant material on steel work
  • sprayed insulation
  • vinyl sheet with fibrous asbestos backing

Friable asbestos is more likely to release airborne asbestos fibres when disturbed.

Non-friable ACM

Non-friable ACM refers to any ACM where the asbestos fibres are usually bonded or mixed with a stable cement or other hard bonding component and so cannot be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to powder by hand pressure.

Examples of non-friable ACM include:

  • asbestos cement sheet
  • asbestos cement moulded products
  • bitumen-based water proofing
  • vinyl floor tiles

Non-friable asbestos in good condition is less likely to produce airborne fibres unless it is disturbed.

It is important for workplaces to be aware that non-friable ACMs can deteriorate, resulting in their re-classification as 'friable'.

A good example of a non-friable ACM that can become friable is asbestos cement sheeting. Cement sheeting can become friable because of:

  • a work process
  • impact or crushing
  • long-term exposure to a chemical mist
  • natural weathering events
  • an extreme event such as heat from a fire

Asbestos effects on health

Asbestos is a known carcinogen.

Exposure to all types of airborne asbestos fibres is hazardous to human health.

Airborne asbestos fibres can become trapped in a person’s lungs where they do not breakdown and are unable to be expelled by the body.

Inhalation of airborne asbestos fibres is a serious health risk and can lead to diseases such as:

  • mesothelioma
  • lung cancer
  • asbestosis

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer in which malignant cells are mainly found in the lining of the lungs, but can also be found in the lining of the abdomen or heart.

Mesothelioma is currently not curable and fatal.

The incidence of mesothelioma is increasing throughout the industrial world because of past exposure to asbestos.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer forms in tissues of the lung, usually in the cells lining air passages.

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is caused by breathing in fibres of asbestos leading to scarring and permanent damage to lung tissue. Asbestosis increases the risk of lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma.

Delayed symptoms

There can be a delay of many years between exposure to asbestos fibres and any symptoms of asbestos related diseases.

Asbestos in the community

A large amount of ACM is still present in the community and can be found in both workplaces and non-workplaces, such as domestic premises and infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels and underground pipes.

In the past, the asbestos cement manufacturing industry was the main consumer of the asbestiform minerals for products that include:

  • asbestos cement roofing
  • external asbestos cement sheet cladding, including faux brick cladding
  • internal asbestos cement sheet walls and ceilings
  • moulded products such as flues, downpipes, guttering, water and sewerage pipes

Other common ACMs

Textiles

  • asbestos felts
  • woven ropes
  • fire blankets
  • foundry gloves
  • electrical cable sheathing

Flooring

  • vinyl floor tiles
  • vinyl floor sheeting

Sprayed insulation materials

Applications include:

  • fire-proofing
  • thermal protection
  • insulation
  • soundproofing

Loosely bound insulation materials

Lagging and other loosely bound insulation materials used in a wide range of applications, including:

  • electrical
  • thermal
  • acoustic

Friction products

  • brake pads
  • clutch mechanisms
  • other friction products

Other ACMs

Other common ACMs include:

  • rubber
  • plastics
  • paint products (particularly industrial epoxy paints)
  • sealants
  • gaskets
  • adhesives
  • filters

See Appendix A for a detailed list of ACM examples. 

Asbestos in workplaces

A person who has management or control of a workplace, and employers or self-employed persons and employees should be aware of the typical uses and applications of ACMs, particularly in buildings constructed or renovated prior to the late 1980s.

Typical locations for ACMs

  • internal walls and ceiling
  • external wall cladding and roof
  • textured coatings
  • floor coverings
  • textiles and composites
  • sprayed coatings on walls, beams and columns
  • electrical switch boards and backing
  • insulation material
  • fire doors
  • hot water system flue

Trades and occupations likely to come across asbestos

ACM was widely used in building and construction projects up to the late 1980s. Many ACMs remain in place and, as a result, may be a risk to employees' health if disturbed.

Trades and occupations have the potential to come into contact with or work near ACMs. These include but are not limited to:

  • asbestos removalist
  • demolition, roofing and construction contractors
  • engineers (heating and ventilation or telecommunication)
  • electricians
  • painters and decorators
  • joiners
  • plumbers and gas fitters
  • plasterers
  • builders and building surveyors
  • shop fitters
  • fire and burglar alarm installers
  • maintenance workers
  • automotive repair employees

Asbestos in the home

Asbestos in the home presents the same risks to health as asbestos in the workplace.

Where a residence is not also a workplace, the OHS Act and OHS Regulations do not apply. Homeowners may have obligations under other relevant legislation if asbestos fibres are generated. It is recommended that homeowners check with their local council about any other requirements that apply to their municipality.

For information on homeowner removal of ACM, refer to Asbestos in Victoria.

Once a homeowner engages employees of an employer or self-employed persons to undertake work at the domestic residence, this residence will be defined as a workplace for the purposes of the OHS Act and the OHS Regulations and legal duties may apply. See Legal Duties for further information.

To engage a licensed asbestos removalist, view WorkSafe's Service Providers Directory in Related information.

Legal duties

Part 4.4 of the OHS Regulations impose strict requirements on how persons with management or control, employers and self-employed persons identify and control exposure to airborne asbestos fibres in workplaces. WorkSafe’s compliance code Managing asbestos in workplaces has more detailed information on these duties.

The OHS Regulations also impose strict requirements on these duty holders in relation to asbestos removal work in the workplace. See WorkSafe’s compliance code Removing asbestos in workplaces for more detailed information.

Consulting employees

In accordance with the OHS Act, employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, consult with employees (and their health and safety representatives if applicable) if they are, or are likely to be, directly affected by health and safety matters as listed in section 35 (1 of the OHS Act). For more information about an employer's duty to consult with employees, read Consultation: A guide for Victorian workplaces.

Information, Instruction and Training

Employers must provide information, instruction and training to employees that may encounter asbestos in their workplace.

Information should be provided on the details within the asbestos register and how to access the asbestos register.

Instruction should include the controls required to be implemented when working with and around ACM and what to do in the event of an incident involving ACM.

Training should be given to those employees that may encounter ACM in how to identify ACM, accessing and understanding the asbestos register and how to control the risk to airborne asbestos fibres, including PPE and decontamination procedures. This information can be detailed in an Asbestos Management Plan for the workplace.

Contractors working at the workplace should also be provided with training on how asbestos is managed at that workplace.

Management or control of the workplace

Who is a person with management or control?

A person with management or control of a workplace generally has the power to make decisions and implement changes to the structure and use of the workplace. Usually this person is the owner of the workplace or a representative of the owner.

The person with management or control can be a person who:

  • owns and works or has employees at the workplace
  • owns the workplace but leases it to an employer or self-employed person, or
  • has legally been assigned management or control duties over a workplace (such as a management group or agent that may or may not be located at the workplace)

Who is an employer?

An employer is a person who employs one or more other persons under contracts of employment or contracts of training.

What is the extent of the employer's management or control?

The extent to which an employer has management or control of the workplace, and any structure or plant within it, can vary.

Generally, a person who leases a building and runs a business from that building is not the person with the management or control of the workplace. This is because they often cannot make changes to the structure of that workplace.

In many cases the regulatory duties that apply to the person with management or control do not apply to the employer (subject to contractual leasing arrangements). For example, where the employer does not own the workplace, the employer would not be able to make physical changes to the workplace structure, such as replacing the roof, unless the employer has signed a leasing contract that allows such works. However, if the workplace is owned by the employer, they would almost certainly be the person with management or control of the workplace and would be able to make changes.

If the employer has introduced plant or structures that contain asbestos (which was installed in that plant or structures before 31 December 2003) to the workplace, it is the employer who has management or control of that plant. For example, an employer who has management and control of a press machine with asbestos-containing brakes, which was installed into the workplace before 31 December 2003, is the person with management or control of that plant.

Managing and removing asbestos

Identifying asbestos

A person who manages or controls a workplace must, so far as is reasonably practicable, identify all asbestos present that is under that person's management or control. This duty applies to a workplace where asbestos is present in a building, structure, ship or plant or has been identified elsewhere at the workplace, such as asbestos in soil.

If there is uncertainty based on reasonable grounds as to whether asbestos is present or if there are inaccessible areas that are likely to contain asbestos, the person who manages or controls the workplace must assume the asbestos is present or arrange for analysis of a sample to be undertaken by a NATA or similar approved laboratory.

All identified asbestos, inaccessible areas and asbestos assumed present must be recorded in an Asbestos Register that contains all of the information required by the OHS Regulations.

If asbestos is identified in a workplace, the person who manages or controls the workplace or the employer must ensure that the presence and location of the asbestos is clearly indicated and if reasonably practicable, the indication is by labelling.

Asbestos register

A person who manages or controls a workplace or an employer must keep an up to date asbestos register with all relevant information about the identified asbestos or ACM. A non exhaustive list of what the register must contain includes:

  • the location of the asbestos
  • the type of ACM
  • the nature of the ACM (friable or non-friable)
  • the condition of the ACM
  • any work activities that may affect or cause damage or deterioration to the ACM

The asbestos register must be reviewed whenever there is a change to the condition of any asbestos or if it is removed, enclosed or sealed.

Regardless of any changes, the register must be reviewed every 5 years and revised if necessary to keep it current.

The asbestos register must be made accessible to all employees and contractors who may encounter asbestos within the workplace.

(See Appendix D in the Compliance Code: Managing asbestos in the workplace, for a proforma of an asbestos register).

Controlling risk

A person who manages or controls a workplace must, so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate any risk associated with the presence of asbestos that is under the person's management or control by removing the asbestos.

If it is not reasonably practicable to remove the asbestos, the person who manages or controls a workplace must reduce the risk associated with the presence of asbestos so far as is reasonably practicable by enclosing the asbestos.

If a risk remains despite the asbestos being enclosed, the person who manages or controls a workplace must reduce the risk associated with the presence of asbestos so far as is reasonably practicable by sealing the asbestos.

The OHS Regulations require a person who manages or controls a workplace to review and, if necessary, revise any measures implemented to control risks associated with the presence of asbestos in specific circumstances, including where the risk control measures are not adequately controlling the risks.

Demolition or refurbishment work

A person who has management or control of a workplace where demolition or refurbishment works are to occur, must identify any asbestos under that person's management or control that is likely to be disturbed by the proposed works.

If an asbestos register is available, this should be used to identify the asbestos. If there is no register available, a determination of the presence of any asbestos or ACM must be done before the demolition or refurbishment work commences.

Demolition and refurbishment work does not include minor or routine maintenance work or other work of a minor nature. For definitions of these and related terms, see WorkSafe's compliance code Managing asbestos in workplaces in Related information.

A person who manages or controls a workplace or an employer, must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the asbestos is removed prior to refurbishment and demolition works.

If the demolition or refurbishment work is to occur to a domestic premises, then the employer or self-employed person performing the work must identify asbestos under that person's management or control that is likely to be disturbed by the proposed demolition or refurbishment work, or engage a competent person with a knowledge of asbestos, to identify the asbestos that is likely to be disturbed during the demolition or refurbishment works.

Asbestos removal

Asbestos removal work must be performed by an asbestos removal licence holder and/or their employees who are appropriately trained and instructed to perform the removal work safely.

Unlicensed removal of limited amounts of asbestos is permitted in certain circumstances only. These circumstances include the removal of non-friable ACM if the quantity does not exceed 10 square metres and if the time taken for the employer or self-employed person to remove the ACM does not take more than 1 hour in a 7 day period.

For more than 1 person doing removal work, the 1 hour period is:

  • 2 people, 30 minutes each
  • 3 people, 20 minutes each

Asbestos removal work must comply with strict safety requirements, including but not limited to:

  • the use of water to suppress dust
  • protective clothing and equipment
  • decontamination facilities
  • waste disposal procedures
  • employee medical examinations
  • the use of signs and barricades
  • the preparation of an asbestos control plan
Limited asbestos removal

Limited removal of asbestos contaminated dust can also be undertaken by the employer or self-employed person if:

  • the removal work does not exceed 10 minutes
    • and does not exceed 1 hour of asbestos removal work over a 7-day period
  • an independent person has determined that airborne asbestos fibres are likely to be less than one half of the exposure standard

All asbestos removal work must be performed under controlled conditions detailed below to prevent exposure to airborne asbestos fibres.

Other asbestos-related activities

Employers also have duties to identify whether an asbestos-related activity is being carried out at the employer's workplace. Examples of asbestos-related activities include:

  • hand drilling and cutting ACM
  • enclosing or sealing of asbestos
  • transport of asbestos for disposal
  • maintenance of dust extraction equipment contaminated with asbestos
  • laundering of clothing contaminated with asbestos
  • research involving asbestos
  • sampling or analysis of suspected asbestos
  • work on a site licensed by EPA Victoria to accept asbestos waste

Refer to regulation 302 in OHS Regulations for the full list of asbestos-related activities.

If asbestos-related activities are carried out at an employer's workplace, an employer will have duties including but not limited to, obtaining a copy of the asbestos register in relation to the activities, eliminating the release of airborne asbestos fibres so far as is reasonably practicable and implementing specific measures to control the risk associated with an asbestos-related activity, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Brooms, brushes, high pressure water jets, power tools and similar instruments must not be used unless their use is controlled in a manner specified by the Regulations. This is to ensure exposure to asbestos fibres is below half the exposure standard of 0.05 f/ml.

All protective clothing contaminated with asbestos must not be removed from a workplace unless it is disposed of appropriately as soon as reasonably practicable or it is contained to be commercially laundered.

ACMs that may be present in the workplace