In the 1970’s several types of asbestos materials used in construction were banned. Then, in 1989 the EPA issued a final rule further banning the use of asbestos, but due to extensive industry lobbying efforts the full ban was overturned in court and only a few specific types of asbestos products were banned as well as any new uses of asbestos. The EPA also issued a final rule in 1990 so that discontinued asbestos products could only be used with specific EPA approval. Many people do not realize that you can still purchase products today in the U.S. with asbestos present.
Should you be worried about asbestos in your workplace?
Dangers Posed by Asbestos in the Workplace
While undisturbed, asbestos material that is in good condition does not pose a serious threat. It only becomes a problem when it is damaged, allowing a release of microscopic fibers into the air, which may cause a variety of respiratory diseases when inhaled.
It is estimated that there may be as many 3.5 million buildings in the U.S. with asbestos present. If you work in a commercial building with asbestos present, you are not in any immediate danger just by being there – under ideal circumstances. The reality is that asbestos fibers are highly likely to be present whenever you enter an old commercial building; you just cannot see them. Commonly, any sort of renovation to a building will stir up and damage asbestos unless it is handled properly by certified/licensed professionals. Even less intensive work like routine HVAC cleaning, floor buffing, and other maintenance activities could release microscopic asbestos fibers into the air.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has warned that the best way to stay safe from asbestos is to take necessary steps to minimize exposure. Since avoiding all buildings with asbestos present is not practical or even possible, what can you do instead?
Smart Ways to Stay in a Building with Asbestos
As a business owner or facility manager, you can follow a few steps to keep yourself, your workers, and other occupants safe from asbestos dangers while working in an older commercial structure. Some of these steps can be followed by workers employed in such a building, but it is the employer or company that is liable to provide reasonable protection from asbestos exposure.
As a business or commercial property owner, you should:
- Know the law: OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other government agencies all have rules and regulations regarding the management of asbestos in buildings. Some of these rules vary, and in some cases may even seem somewhat contradictory. In some locations, local and state requirements may be stricter than the federal rules.
- Get your building tested: The first step is a survey to identify the different types and locations of asbestos present, if any, and the condition of the materials. Different asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) present different amounts of risk. For example, common non-friable ACM floor tiles present much less risk than friable spray-on insulation or friable pipe insulation that is easily accessible to occupants. If friable ACM is present, baseline ambient air testing may also be prudent and an Operations and Maintenance (O&M) program should be prepared to further outline the steps required. Any such testing and inspections must be completed by qualified, licensed professionals independent of any abatement or remediation contractors.
- Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and training: You should discuss asbestos safety with all your affected employees, provide training courses regarding asbestos exposure, and in some cases, you may need to make PPE available to workers. Depending on the level of exposure, as determined by personal exposure monitoring, appropriate respiratory protection may also be required. This typically would apply to your janitorial and maintenance staff or other personnel completing construction or asbestos abatement activity. The average office worker and building occupant would not require PPE or respirators.
- Plan for asbestos abatement: Lastly, you must start thinking about how to abate asbestos in your commercial building. Even if it is deemed safe to work inside the structure now, it is only a matter of time before some renovations or damage stir up dangerous asbestos fibers into the air. Regarding regulations, there is no requirement to remove asbestos from a building unless the building is to be renovated, or demolished; or if the asbestos is damaged and presents a more immediate risk of exposure.
Once it is time to move ahead with abatement activity, you should contact a professional industrial hygiene firm to develop asbestos abatement specifications that can be used to solicit apples-to-apples bids from qualified abatement contractors.
Other Things to Know About Asbestos in Commercial Buildings
What is Asbestos Abatement for Commercial Buildings?
The four asbestos abatement techniques most used are:
- Encapsulation: Special materials are applied over the asbestos as a sealant to help prevent the release of fibers.
- Repair: Typically, this refers to patching or other repairs of damaged asbestos, such as installing protective wrap or covering over asbestos insulation materials to help prevent further damage and release of fibers. Encapsulation is also a form of repair in some cases.
- Enclosure: Enclosure is frequently used during renovations where, for example, asbestos pipe insulation is completely sealed behind new solid wall partitions or mechanical trenches.
- Removal: In some situations, the only way to confidently prevent asbestos exposure is to have a licensed abatement contractor remove the asbestos entirely. This is frequently the case during demolition activity or where the asbestos is significantly damaged.
A licensed abatement design professional should be consulted to help decide the best abatement options for your building or renovation project. Learn more about asbestos removal costs here.
Renovation and Demolition Requirements in Commercial Buildings Containing Asbestos
Below are the major requirements when performing demolition or renovation activities in commercial buildings:
- National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP): This was established under the Clean Air Act and provides guidelines for the demolition and renovation of buildings, installations, and structures to protect workers from exposure.
- Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA): This act requires that only asbestos professionals should be involved in asbestos-containing materials in commercial buildings including schools and public buildings.
In addition, you also need to comply with state and local standards to avoid penalties.
- Recordkeeping and Wrap Up of Asbestos Restoration Work
- 5 Questions All Facility Managers Should Ask to Save Money
- Have New Asbestos Products Really Been Eliminated?
- A Guide to Asbestos Air Quality Testing and Monitoring
Asbestos products are not completely banned, but they are highly regulated by EPA and OSHA. EPA’s final rule in 2019 also prevents discontinued asbestos products from returning to the marketplace without evaluation.
You can find asbestos-containing building materials anywhere in commercial properties, but they are commonly found in places that require durability such as:
– Pipe and ducts
– Roof and siding shingles
– Flooring tiles
According to EPA’s Study Of Asbestos-containing Materials In Public Buildings, around 14-27% of buildings have asbestos-containing friable materials. Also, buildings built in the 1960s have a higher chance of having trowelled-on or sprayed-on firable material.
The use of asbestos materials declined in the 1970s and new uses of asbestos have been banned by the EPA in 1989.
Asbestos Assessments for Companies & Corporations
At RPF Environmental, Inc., we offer a variety of services you will need to ensure your commercial building is safe to occupy. Our accredited laboratory can test for asbestos levels in waste materials, insulation, air and water samples, and much more. We can give you a complete survey of your commercial structure’s asbestos risk. We can also prepare O&M programs and abatement specifications and help connect you with local asbestos abatement contractors once we identify the level of asbestos in your property.