Asbestos...she'll be right?

Written by Gordon Massey Injury Management & OSH Consultant, NECA WA 

In 2016, surgeons removed most of my son’s right lung.  Although we do not know what caused the huge tumour in the first place, in his previous job he had been continually exposed to carcinogenic material.  He never used a mask and his attitude was ‘she’ll be right’. Many tradespeople have the same attitude towards Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) products.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, it was common to use asbestos in a lot of different industrial applications, building products and household items, especially where heat was an issue.  Much of the cement fibre products manufactured during that period included asbestos.  Many products used in industry and homes included ACM. The PMG (now Telstra) installed many pits containing asbestos and although there is now a big push to replace them, some continue to be used. 

In the electrical industry ACM products may include electrical backing boards in switchboards and fuse boxes.  Common names of ‘Ausbestos’ or ‘Zelemite’ are found on electrical mounting boards across Australia.

Asbestos had many beneficial properties and people often said it was a great product. The problem is that it has the potential to kill.  

Asbestos in good condition has a minimal health risk, however asbestos fibres (especially the type mined at Wittenoom, WA) are most dangerous when in the air.  The fibres are minuscule and can only be seen through a microscope. They can easily defeat natural defences within the body eventually lodging within the lungs. What is most insidious is that a person can be oblivious to an asbestos related condition for many decades.  

Friable (crumbly or dusty) material is the result of the breakdown of the ACM or human activity such as drilling or cutting.  As the ACM becomes friable, the asbestos fibre, which is very fine, is easily disturbed and will easily enter the atmosphere.  In this state it is most dangerous to those in close proximity.  

Removal or demolition of non-friable asbestos greater than 10 square metres requires a licence, but when it comes to any amount of friable asbestos, an unrestricted licence is required. There are a couple of documents worth reviewing before starting a job that may contain ACM:

  • WA OSH Regulations, Division 4, Subdivision 1 – Asbestos
  • National Code of Practice for the Safe Removal of Asbestos 
  • The Government of Western Australia’s Checklist for asbestos management

What does all this mean to the tradie?

  • Ask to see the Asbestos Register before starting work at a commercial building or industrial site and find out where the asbestos is.
  • In a domestic site you may need to get the product tested.  If in doubt, treat the material as if it is ACM.
  • Wherever possible, give asbestos containing products a wide berth.
  • When working near actual or suspected asbestos products, use PPE identified in the national Code of Practice, including a P1/P2 mask, disposable coveralls that encompass the head and feet and use disposable gloves.
  • Barricade and sign the area - exposure is a result of proximity and concentration.
  • Prevent dust from becoming airborne.  Use a damp cloth to pick up debris and never use a domestic vacuum cleaner. 
  • A tip for dust management when drilling ACM: Fill a disposable cup with foam (shaving cream works) and drill through the cup into the material.  Any debris or dust will be captured by the foam.
  • All waste materials and PPE are to be placed into 200 micron plastic bags, sealed with duct tape and labelled. 
  • Take the waste to an approved disposal facility.  Various councils around WA have asbestos disposal sites.

When it comes to working with asbestos or ACM, it’s not ‘she’ll be right’, but ‘DO IT RIGHT’.

For further information, please contact  the Safety Team at NECA WA on (08) 6241 6100 or email