TABLE OF CONTENTS Aug 2008 - 2 comments

Dangers of Disturbed Asbestos

Restoration in older buildings often involves disturbing asbestos-containing finishes, which, if not handled properly, can pose serious health concerns.

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By: Bruce Stewart

The term asbestos refers to a number of minerals that are formed into long, flexible fibres. The majority of asbestos imported into Canada was used in the manufacture of building materials, until its use declined in the '80s. While some of these asbestos building materials have been removed during demolitions or renovations, the majority of this material still remains in place. The disturbance of asbestos materials during a fire, flood or other loss can release harmful levels of asbestos. Adjusters, contractors, workers and building occupants can be exposed to asbestos during the restoration of impacted areas if proper precautions are not taken.

Asbestos is a hazardous material due to its tendency to break into very fine fibres that are easily airborne and inhaled. Once inhaled, asbestos fibres are cleared from the lungs very slowly and can lead to cancers of the lung or chest, among other diseases. The impact of past asbestos exposures continues to be grim. In Ontario, the yearly death toll from asbestos in the construction industry now exceeds deaths from electrocutions, falls, trench collapse and all other accidents combined. Provincial health and safety regulators across Canada have increased their efforts considerably over the past decade to ensure this pattern is not carried into the future.

Regulations and Responsibilities

Ontario became the first North American jurisdiction in 1985 to issue regulations for asbestos control in buildings. All provinces and territories now control the disturbance of asbestos materials during maintenance and repair work, either through detailed occupational health and safety regulations or reference to guidelines in other jurisdictions. The asbestos regulations categorize asbestos materials as friable (easily releases fine dust) or non-friable. The precautions for non-friable materials are much less stringent than those for friable materials. The provincial regulations and guidelines require building owners -- except homeowners -- to identify their asbestos materials and manage them safely. The regulation was extensively updated in 2005 and major changes in Ontario at that time included the explicit requirement to survey all buildings for both friable and non-friable asbestos materials, yearly re-assessments, multiple samples required to judge a material asbestos-free, mandatory training and licensing of large scale abatement workers and supervisors, enhanced work practices for some categories of work, and mandatory post-abatement air sampling.

All provinces explicitly require building owners to notify contractors of asbestos materials that might be disturbed during construction or restoration work. This requirement to notify contractors certainly applies to restoration contractors repairing buildings after fires, floods or other covered losses. The contractor is required by regulations to protect their employees from all known or potential hazards, including asbestos, even if the owner does not provide any asbestos notification. Contractors who do not follow provincial health and safety requirements are liable to the provincial occupational health and safety regulator, and could be subject to corporate or personal fines, and even imprisonment. Contractors are also liable to occupants of buildings who might allege personal injury from exposure to asbestos if the prescribed precautions are not observed. Restoration contractors should be particularly concerned about the liability of inappropriately disturbing asbestos in residential settings.

Responsibility of the adjuster

The adjuster involved in a project where asbestos may have been inappropriately disturbed, likely does not have explicit duties under provincial asbestos regulations. Howev- er, it is possible an adjuster in Ontario might be seen by the Ontario Ministry of Labour to be acting as the constructor on the project. Under Ontario law, a constructor is an owner or an agent of an owner who is directing the efforts of more than one contractor at any time. This makes constructors responsible for the health and safety of all contractors and employees on a project. Ontario adjusters should consult with occupational health and safety counsel to determine if they are regarded as the constructor in certain instances and the measures they should take to avoid or reduce this liability.

Protecting the adjuster from asbestos exposures

Adjusters inspecting buildings built before the mid-'80s run the risk of asbestos exposure if asbestos-containing materials are present and have been damaged. The materials of most concern from that era are sprayed insulation or fireproofing, texture plaster, mechanical insulation and acoustic ceiling tiles.

The most widespread application of asbestos-suspect material can be frequently overlooked. The cement used to finish drywall seams and nail or screw holes commonly contained asbestos, until banned by federal regulation in the mid-'80s. British Columbia, Ontario, and Newfoundland require moderate or high-risk asbestos work practices for the disturbance of large areas of drywall finished with asbestos joint compound. Ontario classifies a large area of drywall disturbance, as any amount more than one square meter at a time, and for this work requires signage, respirators, disposable coveralls, work area isolation and careful waste packaging.

The adjuster should refer to the property owner's asbestos inventory to check these suspect materials. If no information is available, take precautions until the presence or absence of asbestos can be confirmed by testing. Take care to not disturb the damaged materials any more than necessary. Minimum precautions under such circumstances -- and required by provincial regulations -- would include a minimum of a half-face piece respirator fitted with P100 filters, disposable gloves, coveralls and boot covers. The adjuster should dispose of the coveralls and boot covers after use, clean the respirator and thoroughly wash up.

Asbestos in property damage losses

Adjusters and contractors can take the following steps to comply with current regulations and to minimize liability from occupants:

• At the very beginning of a loss, request an up-to-date inventory of asbestos materials from the building owner. This will assist the building owner, adjuster and contractor in planning for any necessary precautions. The project may require the collection and testing of additional samples to confirm the presence or absence of asbestos. Do not proceed with removal of materials until their asbestos content has been confirmed.

• Consider the need for personal protection during the initial phases of the investigation and restoration. Personal protection, isolation of the damaged areas and other measures might be necessary if friable asbestos materials, such as sprayed fireproofing, mechanical insulation or ceiling tiles, have been damaged.

• Determine the required asbestos precautions for the remaining work. An environmental consultant is frequently retained to prepare a project specific safety plan and to ensure and document that the work meets all applicable safety requirements.

• Ensure the contractor notifies the provincial regulator of asbestos disturbance, required by all provinces except Nova Scotia.

• Check that the restoration contractor or subcontractor has appropriate environmental insurance including coverage for asbestos abatement. The supervisors and workers must also hold provincially required licensing or certification. Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and the Yukon require certification or licensing of the workers or contractors who perform largescale asbestos work. Most provinces also required air monitoring at the end of major risk work to demonstrate a clean condition prior to removing the containment barriers.

Adjusters or contractors can receive further information on asbestos control from their provincial occupational health and safety authority or from training courses available across Canada.

Bruce Stewart, B. Sc., DOHS, CIH, ROH, is a vice president with Pinchin Environmental Ltd. -- part of the Pinchin Group of Companies, which provide consulting, training and analytical services to control hazardous materials in buildings, among other environmental concerns.


Common Asbestos Materials

This is just a partial list of some of the more common building materials that at one time contained asbestos:

• Insulation on pipes, boilers, ducts, etc.

• Sprayed insulation for fireproofing or acoustics

• Texture or stipple plaster finishes on ceilings and walls

• Drywall joint compound

• Plaster

• Fibre-reinforced cement board, tiles, pipe, etc.

• Acoustic ceiling tiles

• Vinyl floor tiles

• Sheet flooring

• Building paper

• Roofing materials

• Glues, mastics, caulking

The age of a building can be used as a first indicator of the likelihood of asbestos content. Generally, asbestos materials were taken off the market in the '70s and '80s. However, the phase-out of asbestos was gradual and not driven by any regulatory timetable and therefore age alone cannot reliably rule out the presence of asbestos. Provincial regulations require that building owners and contractors test suspect materials when in doubt and Ontario and Quebec require multiple samples be taken to prove a material does not contain asbestos.


Bruce Stewart
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