Gillian is an apprentice carpenter who works on home renovations. Demolition is a regular part of the job. When she pulls off the drywall, there is always a risk that there is asbestos in the drywall itself, or hiding in the insulation behind the wall. Exposure to asbestos fibres can cause serious illness. Carpenters like Gillian aren’t alone. For many occupations the risk of encountering harmful asbestos fibres is a part of the job. Although asbestos is no longer mined in Canada it is still prevalent in existing construction materials and in certain new imported products. Being aware of the hazards of asbestos and preventing exposure is as important as ever.
Asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring, fibrous silicate minerals. Widely found in many building materials, asbestos was used for many commercial applications because of its heat and fire resistance, strength, insulating and friction characteristics, and its ability to be woven.
One of the sources of work-related asbestos exposure today is from contact with asbestos-containing products hidden in old building materials. Before 1990, asbestos was frequently used for insulating buildings and homes against cold weather and noise, and for fireproofing. Asbestos has been used in the manufacture of roofing, flooring, thermal and electrical insulation, cement pipe and sheets, coatings, plastics, and other products.
The dangers of asbestos stem from the fact that asbestos is a friable material, which means that when it is dry, it can be crumbled, pulverized or powdered. When improperly handled or disturbed, products that contain asbestos can release harmful fibres into the air. If inhaled, microscopic asbestos fibres can’t be removed from the lungs and cause serious illnesses.
Workers and others exposed to asbestos fibres have developed asbestos-related diseases, including:
- asbestosis - scarring of the lungs, which makes it difficult to breathe
- pleural disease – a non-cancerous lung condition that causes changes in the membrane surrounding the lungs and chest cavity
- lung cancer - a malignant tumour that invades and blocks the lung’s air passages
- mesothelioma - a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity
Exposed workers will be at risk of developing asbestos-related disease for many years after they are exposed. The time period between exposure and the development of asbestos-related disease can range from 10 to 55 years. Asbestos was the most common source of workplace death claims in 2014, cited in 388 cases in data provided by the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada. In that year, mesothelioma was the number one cause of death in accepted fatality claims.
Asbestos in the workplace
There are no significant health risks if materials containing asbestos are:
- tightly bound in products and are in good condition
- sealed behind walls and floorboards
- isolated in an attic
- left undisturbed
However, asbestos fibres can be released into the air when:
- disturbing or removing insulation that contains asbestos, including insulation around hot water pipes and tanks,
- removing or disturbing roofing shingles and felt or siding containing asbestos,
- sanding, breaking apart or scraping vinyl asbestos floor tiles,
- breaking apart soundproofing ceiling tiles containing asbestos,
- sanding or disturbing plaster containing asbestos, including acoustical plaster,
- sawing, drilling or smoothing rough edges of asbestos materials,
- sanding or scraping older surface treatments containing asbestos, such as roofing compounds like tar paper, spackling, sealants, paint, putty, caulking, or drywall.
Before starting demolition, conduct a thorough inspection of the building including all rooms and spaces, ceiling spaces, cellars, shafts, storage areas, and wall cavities. You should always assume the material contains asbestos, or get it tested when it can’t be identified; it can’t be accessed and is likely to contain asbestos; or you can’t be sure it doesn’t contain asbestos.
If asbestos is found, a qualified asbestos removal specialist should be hired to safely remove and dispose of the asbestos materials before beginning any other work. Do not disturb asbestos materials yourself as this increases the risk of exposure.
Employers take action
When asbestos is present, a control program must be implemented with the goal to prevent or minimize the release of airborne asbestos fibres. The employer must make sure that the control plan is developed and implemented according to the requirements for their local government regulations.
In general, the control plan should address:
- containment of asbestos operations.
- controlling the release of asbestos fibres.
- engineering controls, work practices, hygiene practices, and facilities necessary to control the exposure of a worker to asbestos.
- providing workers with task-specific work instructions that address both the hazards and the necessary controls.
- providing, using and maintaining appropriate personal protective equipment and clothing
- the methods and procedures needed to monitor the concentration of airborne asbestos and the exposure of a worker.
- the methods needed to decontaminate workers clothes, etc.,
- the removal and clean-up of asbestos waste and related material.
Controlling the spread of dust beyond the work area is critically important so that people outside of the work area are not exposed to asbestos fibres. The specific controls to achieve this range from using polyethylene sheeting barriers for low-risk operations, to setting up a separate ventilation system maintained under a negative pressure for high-risk work areas.
In general, anyone working with asbestos must be educated and trained on:
- the hazards of asbestos exposure.
- how to identify asbestos-containing material.
- personal hygiene and work practices, including the specific work procedures to be followed.
- the operation of the required engineering controls.
- the use, cleaning, maintenance and disposal of protective equipment and clothing.
- disposal procedures for asbestos-contaminated materials.
- the purpose and significance of any required health monitoring.
People who work around asbestos, or materials that contain it, must have proper training for handling asbestos and wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
If you have had asbestos exposure, preventing further harm to the respiratory system can lower the chances of disease developing. You should have regular medical exams, get routine vaccinations against flu and pneumococcal pneumonia, quit smoking, and avoid further asbestos exposure.
In Canada, all provinces and territories have regulations regarding asbestos management including the rights and duties of all parties in the workplace. In addition, the Government of Canada regulates the sale of certain high-risk consumer products made of asbestos or that contain through the Asbestos Products Regulations under the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act.
• Asbestos fact sheets, CCOHS
• Asbestos, Health and Safety Ontario
• Asbestos, CAREX Canada
• Health Risks of Asbestos, Health Canada
• Asbestos and Your Health, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
In the News
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has released an updated policy on drug and alcohol testing, including a list of 11 key policy features. The policy aims to safeguard equal rights and opportunities for every person without discrimination and respect employers’ goal of having a safe work place. In light of the predicted move to legalize the recreational personal use of marijuana by the Canadian federal government next year, the subject of worker impairment and workplace safety is timely. Organizations may find these 11 features helpful when developing their own drug and alcohol testing policy.
In its updated policy on drug and alcohol testing, the OHRC states that it is a legitimate goal for employers to have a safe workplace. They acknowledge that safety at work can be negatively affected by many factors, including fatigue, stress, distractions and hazards in the workplace and that drug and alcohol testing is one method employers sometimes use to address safety concerns arising from drug and alcohol use.
The policy also expresses that drug and alcohol testing has particular human rights implications for people with addictions. Under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code), addictions to drugs or alcohol are considered “disabilities” and the Code prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and perceived disabilities in employment, services, housing and other social areas.
For this reason, drug and alcohol testing policies may be discriminatory based on addictions or perceived addictions. They raise human rights concerns where a positive test leads to negative consequences for a person based on an addiction or perceived addiction, such as automatic discipline or inflexible terms and conditions on a person’s job.
Impairment over use
According to the updated policy, the primary reason for conducting drug and alcohol testing should be to measure impairment, as opposed to deterring drug or alcohol use. Drug and alcohol testing may be justifiable if an employer can show that testing provisions are legitimate requirements of the job. One example situation could be if an employee is in a safety-sensitive position and after a significant accident or “near-miss”, and only then as part of a larger assessment of drug and alcohol addiction. By testing to measure impairment, especially in jobs that are safety-sensitive, an appropriate balance can be struck between human rights and safety requirements, for both employees and the public.
The policy goes on to propose that following a positive test, employers should offer a process of individualized assessment of drug or alcohol addiction and must accommodate employees with addictions to the point of undue hardship. If employers or drug and alcohol testing policies treat recreational (or casual) users as if they are people with addictions and impose consequences on this basis, they may be regarded as discriminatory based on “perceived disability.”
The OHRC lists the following as key policy features of a drug and alcohol testing policy that is respectful of human rights and may be justifiable under the Ontario Human Rights Code:
- Is based on a rational connection between the purpose of testing (minimizing the risk of impairment to ensure safety) and job performance
- Shows that testing is necessary to achieve workplace safety
- Is put in place after alternative, less intrusive methods for detecting impairment and increasing workplace safety have been explored
- Is used only in limited circumstances, such as forcause, postincident or postreinstatement situations
- Does not apply automatic consequences following positive tests
- Does not conflate substance use with substance addiction
- Is used as part of a larger assessment of drug or alcohol addiction (for example, employee assistance programs, drug education and awareness programs and a broader medical assessment by a professional with expertise in substance use disorders or physician that provides a process for inquiring into possible disability)
- Provides individualized accommodation for people with addictions who test positive, to the point of undue hardship
- Uses testing methods that are highly accurate, able to measure current impairment, are minimally intrusive and provide rapid results
- Uses reputable procedures for analysis, and
- Ensures confidentiality of medical information and the dignity of the person throughout the process.
The updated Policy on Drug and Alcohol Testing is available as an accessible PDF from the Ontario Human Rights Commission website.
Tips & Tools
Cold, dark mornings, darker afternoons and early evenings characterize the late autumn. You may think that feeling tired or rundown is a symptom of the season, but any number of other factors may be causing the fatigue you are experiencing.
Fatigue is the state of feeling very tired, weary, or sleepy as a result of too little sleep, prolonged mental and physical work, or extended periods of stress or anxiety. Boring or repetitive tasks can intensify feelings of fatigue. Fatigue can impact work performance. Some studies have shown that when workers have slept for less than 5 hours before work or when workers have been awake for more than 16 hours, their chance of making a mistake at work due to fatigue is significantly increased.
Here are some tips for fighting fatigue:
- Eat a healthy diet that promotes longer-lasting energy. Complex carbohydrates (green vegetables, beans, grains) are preferable to simple carbohydrates (sugars). Avoid fatty foods and junk food.
- Adopt a steady exercise routine that includes cardiovascular, muscle strengthening and flexibility workouts.
- Try to get at least 7.5 – 8.5 hours of sleep per night. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
- Stay positive. Make a conscious effort not to be overwhelmed by negative circumstances.
- Avoid driving if you are tired, especially in inclement weather when road conditions are hazardous, and visibility is limited.
- Avoid excessive noise.
- Make sure the work environment does not promote fatigue. Try to avoid dim lighting, toasty warm temperatures, and excessive noise.
- Vary job tasks to eliminate repetition or long periods of boring, monotonous work.
- Incorporate and encourage taking breaks.
- Train workers on the importance of getting enough rest and how to achieve work-life balance.
- Introduce shorter shifts, and rotate shifts in the direction of the sun (morning, afternoon, night, in that order).
Health and Safety To Go
This month’s podcast features the new podcast episode Recognizing Radon and an encore of the podcast Addressing Work-related Stress.
Feature Podcast: Recognizing Radon
Radon is a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas released when uranium, found naturally in rocks and soil, decays. It is also classified as a known carcinogen and a leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. In Canada, radon can be found in new and older homes, public buildings and underground worksites. In this podcast, Dr. Cheryl Peters, Postdoctoral Fellow at Carleton University and Occupational Exposures Lead Scientist at CAREX Canada discusses radon, where it’s found, the impact it can have on our health and how we can limit our exposure to it.
The podcast runs 8:22 minutes.
Encore Podcast: Addressing Work-related Stress
This podcast discusses the causes of a stressful workplace, and offers helpful tips on how workers can avoid or minimize stress, and what employers can do to address this important issue.
The podcast runs 5:19 minutes.
CCOHS produces free monthly podcasts on a wide variety of topics designed to keep you current with information, tips, and insights into the health, safety, and well-being of working Canadians. You can download the audio segment to your computer or MP3 player and listen to it at your own convenience... or on the go!
What are the top barriers and issues affecting the health and safety of workplaces in Canada, and what can we do about them? Seize your opportunity to be heard by taking part in an online survey that continues the conversation sparked at Forum 2016 held earlier this year in Vancouver.
CCOHS’ Forum 2016 brought together subject experts, workers, employers and governments from across the country and beyond, to learn about and discuss current and emerging health and safety issues. Delegates explored the challenges arising from shifting demographics, climate change, mental health, workplace culture, emotional intelligence, and more.
Through workshop sessions delegates also weighed in on the barriers, issues, ideas, and good practices taking place in workplaces. They highlighted their own experiences, identifying concerns and outlining possible solutions and strategies. CCOHS invites Canadians to help continue that dialogue. Take part in our survey and add your voice and perspective.
To take the survey, visit http://www.ccohs.ca/events/forum16/#outcomes .
The full results of this survey will be available next year.
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
© 2016, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Length: 8:22 minutes
January 25-26, 2017
February 6-8, 2017
February 21-22, 2017
St. Johns, NL
March 2, 2017