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Safety alert issued over asbestos and high-pressure cleaning

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Date: 
Sunday, 12 February, 2023 - 12:00
Category: 
Policy & legislation
Location: 
South Australia

SafeWork SA recently issued a safety alert following an incident in which a painting contractor used a high-pressure water cleaner on a residential asbestos cement roof to prepare it for painting.

The high-pressure water delaminated the asbestos roof sheet surface, and a slurry contaminated with asbestos fibres washed out of the downpipes onto a driveway and neighbouring property.

SafeWork SA reminded painting professionals and other contractors that high-pressure water cleaning of asbestos cement material is prohibited, and an initial SafeWork SA investigation found:

  • The homeowner engaged a painting contractor to clean and paint the roof.
  • More than 50 per cent of the roof surface was cleaned using high-pressure water before a neighbour advised the workers that the roof sheets contained asbestos.
  • Prior to SafeWork SA being notified, the homeowner engaged a class A asbestos removalist to remediate the site.
  • The painting contractor said he was unaware of the asbestos material and claimed the homeowner did not advise it was asbestos.
  • The homeowner is not a duty holder under the work health and safety legislation, meaning the painting contractor failed in their duties to identify asbestos and eliminate the risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibres to their workers and others.
  • The use of high-pressure water on asbestos cement material is prohibited under the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2012 (SA).

The safety alert subsequently made a number of recommendations for high-pressure water and asbestos:

  • Using high-pressure water cleaners on asbestos cement breaks down the surface of the material, and spreads asbestos-containing residue over a wide area, including neighbouring properties.

  • The asbestos residue that is dispersed is considered friable and easily releases respirable asbestos fibres which pose a significant health risk.
  • The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) can declare affected properties to be contaminated which imposes additional requirements for cleaning up of asbestos-contaminated soil.
  • Asbestos-containing residue from high-pressure cleaning of asbestos cement must be cleaned up by an asbestos removalist holding a class A licence.
  • A licensed asbestos assessor will need to set up air monitoring during the clean-up and undertake a clearance inspection at the completion of the works.
  • For a licenced asbestos assessor to issue a clearance certificate, a competent person will need to collect and test samples from affected areas to ensure the properties have been adequately cleaned up.
  • When working on buildings constructed before 1990, it is likely asbestos could be present in roofing and other sheet materials.
  • Workers engaged to paint asbestos cement surfaces must be adequately trained in the identification of asbestos-containing materials and appropriate safe work methods for cleaning and painting such materials.

The alert also recommended a number of control measures:

  • Do not use high-pressure water cleaners on asbestos cement material.

  • People seeking to paint asbestos cement material such as roof sheeting that needs to be cleaned prior to painting can only use non-abrasive preparation techniques such as the use of cleaning solutions that can be applied and washed off with low-pressure water.
  • Painters intending to paint asbestos cement material should consult paint manufacturers to obtain further information on suitable alternative preparation techniques.
  • If the asbestos cement material is in poor condition, removal and replacement with non-asbestos-contained material is recommended instead of painting.
  • Ensure workers involved in the carrying out of asbestos-related work, are trained in the identification and safe handling of, and suitable control measures for asbestos and asbestos-containing material.
  • Ensure workers engaged to clean or paint asbestos-containing materials have been informed about the hazards and safe work methods for the task.
  • Where asbestos-containing material is present at a workplace, an asbestos register must be available and used in planning work that may disturb the material.

“It is hard to believe that the painting contractor was unaware that the roof may have been asbestos material considering the amount of published information and educational campaigns over many years,” said SafeWork SA acting executive director Glenn Farrell.

“Cleaning up properties contaminated by asbestos residue from high-pressure water cleaning is a very expensive process and creates further exposure risks.”