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Jobs That Have High Risk of Asbestos Exposure in Australia

In 2018, nearly 700 Australians died from mesothelioma. It’s a form of lung cancer that is mainly caused by asbestos exposure.

This figure has already risen since then, making us second in terms of mesothelioma death rate in the whole world. Only second to the United Kingdom.

According to global statistics, the number one cause of mesothelioma is occupational asbestos exposure. Or simply, getting exposed to asbestos in the workplace or while working.

But the thing is asbestos was already completely banned in Australia almost two decades ago. It’s no longer used in residential properties and commercial workplaces.

This only goes to show just how deadly asbestos can be.

That’s why in this piece, we’re going to show you which Australian jobs have the highest risk of getting exposed to asbestos.

For those who are not familiar with asbestos, below are some quick facts.

Quick facts about asbestos to get you up to speed:

  • Asbestos is a fire and heat-resistant material that was used in almost all industries, from construction to automotive, textile, shipbuilding and more
  • It was widely used from the 1940s up to the 90s, then regulated after that until its total ban
  • It was once considered a “miracle material” because it’s cheap and has a lot of uses
  • It was later discovered that it can cause several lung diseases and complications when inhaled or ingested
  • It was eventually banned in Australia in December 2003
  • Unlike any other construction materials, it was not produced in large factories
  • During its glory days, asbestos was mined from countries such as China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Australia, then exported all over the world
  • Believe it or not, the Western Australia town of Wittenoom was once an asbestos mining hub from the 1930s to mid-60s as well.
  • Mining asbestos in Wittenoom was finally regulated in the 70s until its total ban in 2003

Now that your asbestos knowledge is refreshed, let’s get straight to the meat of this piece.

What is occupational asbestos exposure?

Although asbestos is not used in Australia anymore, it still poses a lot of health risks and hazards.

A lot of the residential properties, commercial establishments, and workplaces that were built with asbestos before 2003 are still standing to this day.

It’s still present in homes, schools, roads, factories, trains, and automobiles, leaving a lot of people at risk of exposure and diseases. Especially the ones working around asbestos.

According to the World Health Organization, annually, more than 125 million people in the whole world are exposed to asbestos while working.

Occupational asbestos exposure, in fact, is the leading cause of mesothelioma. But more on this later.

In a 2018 report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, nearly 1000 people that were diagnosed with mesothelioma since July 2010 were assessed.

It was later found out that 93% of them had possible asbestos exposure or contact at work.

It was also indicated in the study that from 2015 to 2018, there were about 4 cases of mesothelioma per 100K people in Western Australia. This is not surprising given the fact it was once an asbestos mining hub.

Aside from asbestos miners, other workers from other industries like construction, shipyards, automotive, and more, are also at risk of getting mesothelioma and other lung diseases because of asbestos exposure.

What jobs are at most risk of asbestos exposure?

The risk of getting lung complications due to occupational asbestos exposure can be categorised into three levels: high, medium, and low risk.

These levels are defined by the frequency of asbestos exposure and how much asbestos fibres a certain worker is exposed to.

An asbestos worker who has worked with asbestos every day for years might be more at risk compared to someone who has minimal direct asbestos exposure.

Keep in mind, however, that these risk levels don’t determine if you’re safe from getting asbestos diseases.

Whether you’re a medium-risk or a low-risk individual, there’s still a good chance that you’re going to develop certain complications later in life.

See below which jobs fit into said categories. 

High Risk

Occupations with a high risk of asbestos exposure are those that deal with the production, installation, and removal of asbestos products constantly.

Workers who worked with asbestos-containing machinery are also at high risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases because of their constant exposure to asbestos.

Mineworkers

If there’s a group of people that are most exposed to asbestos, they’re the ones who mined the asbestos material themselves.

Miners who worked around asbestos daily during the mining and packaging processes of asbestos are at most risk of contracting diseases like mesothelioma.

In a 2012 study that followed about 7000 men and women who worked at the Wittenoom asbestos mine in the 60s, it was found out that 316 men and 13 women developed mesothelioma nearly 40 years after.

About 300 deaths due to this form of cancer have already been recorded. What’s even more surprising is that it’s only 10% of all known deaths.

The asbestos mine in Wittenoom was already shut down in 1966.

However, there are still growing health concerns until now among the mineworkers who worked there as it’s only a matter of time before they know that they’ve contracted asbestos-related diseases.

view of asbestos inspector taking images of potential asbestos

Asbestos inspection and removal professionals

Professionals like us here in Greenlight Environmental Services who are responsible for detecting, testing, and monitoring asbestos presence in a property, are also at risk.

Asbestos experts who are in the asbestos removal industry are also at risk since they’re responsible for asbestos extraction and proper disposal to avoid further contamination of other areas. 

Construction workers

Builders are among those with the highest rate of asbestos exposure. 

This is something that they can’t get away from because it’s still present in many of the old residential properties and public buildings that are standing to this day.

Every time they renovate any of these establishments or properties, there’s a good chance that they’ll make contact with the asbestos floor and roofing tiles, joint compounds, and other asbestos products used in construction.

Auto and aircraft mechanics

Mechanics who have worked around aircraft and automotive are also prone to asbestos exposure.

Asbestos was used mainly in high-friction materials like brakes, clutches, heat shields, and other essential parts of a car or an aircraft.

Mechanics get exposed to these asbestos-containing products every time they service an automotive or an aircraft, increasing their chance of developing an asbestos-related disease.

Firefighters

When fire breaks out in an old building or establishment, there’s a great chance that the firefighters who will respond to the situation will get exposed to asbestos.

During fires or other natural disasters, the asbestos products in old buildings are disturbed, eventually releasing thousands of asbestos dust.

Firefighters and other rescuers can potentially inhale these fibres or dust and develop lung cancer later in life.

Industrial workers

Specialised production workers, like machine operators, machinists, welders, metal workers, mechanics and tradespeople were at risk of exposure to asbestos due to the handling and manufacturing of asbestos materials.

Any type of industrial worker who handled refractory products, gaskets, or valves may have been exposed to asbestos.

Workers in this field were also at risk to asbestos exposure due to the protective gear they wore. Items like aprons, gloves and clothing was often made to be fire proof and heat resistant, which asbestos fibres can help with.

Shipyard workers

Asbestos can also be found almost anywhere on ships and other types of vessels.

From asbestos insulation to pipe coverings and valves, asbestos is present, endangering the long-term health of shipyard workers.

It’s no wonder that shipyard workers are in the top 10 occupations that are prone to mesothelioma in Australia.

Medium Risk

Workers who work around materials and equipment with a moderate concentration of asbestos fibres are categorised into medium risk levels.

These workers have worked or are working around asbestos not regularly compared to the high-risk individuals.

First Responders

During natural disasters, the destruction of buildings, old or new, is inevitable. These destructions often cause the release of asbestos fibres from vintage establishments. 

This is when first responders get exposed to asbestos. Especially during rescue missions and other disaster response efforts when they have to go near or inside these asbestos-filled buildings.

Although firefighters and first responders share the same nature of work, the latter is at the medium-risk level because of the frequency of their asbestos exposure.

Firefighters get exposed to asbestos more frequently while responding to fire emergencies.

Boiler workers

Asbestos was widely used in several components of boilers and other HVAC equipment because of its ability to withstand high temperatures.

Given that, boiler workers are considered medium-risk individuals as they may have been exposed to asbestos during the manufacturing, installation, maintenance, and repair of boilers and other HVAC systems.

Carpenters

While asbestos is not used in the construction industry anymore, carpenters are still at risk of asbestos exposure.

They may get exposed to this material during one of their renovation projects of older homes or buildings that were built in the 40s to early 2000s.

These houses were built with asbestos-containing construction materials like insulation, tiles, roofs, and more.

Electricians

Aside from carpenters, electricians also deal with asbestos during electrical repair works in vintage homes and establishments.

They get exposed to this hazardous material when they need to repair the electrical panels, wiring insulation, and other products that were frequently fused with asbestos before the 1980s.

Cement plant workers

In the heyday of asbestos, it was fused in a lot of construction materials including cement. Asbestos was proven to increase the durability and heat resistance of cement.

This was not possible without the cement plant workers that were exposed to asbestos while mixing them or forming the cement into blocks.

Railroad workers

The railroad industry is one of the industries that highly benefited from the great qualities of asbestos. However, it’s the railroad workers that are paying the price now.

They are exposed to asbestos that’s literally found everywhere, from the floorings to train cars, steam engines, brake pads and more.

When digging for new rail lines, there’s also a possibility that the workers will get exposed if they disturb the asbestos from decades ago.

Low risk

Low-risk individuals are those who have very minimal exposure to buildings, equipment, and other asbestos product that have a very low concentration of asbestos.

See below some of these low-risk occupations.

Appliance Installers

While manufacturers don’t use asbestos in their electrical products anymore, appliance installers can still be exposed to this material.

They can be exposed during installing appliances in old houses or buildings that may still contain asbestos.

Engineers

Engineers don’t necessarily handle asbestos products themselves. But since they are employed in different industries like construction or mining, they still have a chance of getting exposed to asbestos every time they visit a job site.

They may also come into contact with other workers who handle asbestos products and equipment first-hand. 

Farmers

Just like engineers, farmers don’t work around asbestos. They may get exposed to asbestos only when old farm buildings or old farming equipment need to be repaired.

The asbestos in these buildings and machinery may be disturbed and release dust into the hair that farmers can accidentally inhale.

Asbestos-related Diseases that At-risk Workers May Develop

Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma, like we’ve mentioned earlier, is a rare form of lung cancer.

It arises from the mesothelial cells found in the surface of the lungs, linings of the chest wall, abdominal cavities, and protective linings in the body.

This disease is caused mainly by asbestos inhalation. In Australia alone, nearly 90% of all mesothelioma patients were exposed to asbestos decades earlier, mostly at the workplace.

This confirms the notion that occupational asbestos exposure is the number one cause of mesothelioma not only in the Land Down Under but also in other parts of the world.

If you’ve been exposed to asbestos at your workplace, you might develop mesothelioma and experience these symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sensitive skin
  • Loss of appetite, energy, and weight
  • Persistent cough
  • Excessive sweating and more

Asbestosis

Asbestosis is often characterized as the scarring of the lungs and the pleural membrane that surrounds the lungs. This is caused by the inhalation of asbestos dust.

Its symptoms may appear 10-20 years after asbestos exposure. Some of the known symptoms are:

  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Frequent coughing
  • Lung damages
  • Enlarged heart in severe cases.

Lung Cancer

This is also the same type of cancer that you can get from smoking tobacco.

Twenty years after your asbestos exposure, a malignant tumour can be found within your lungs and you will have to undergo treatment such as chemotherapy, which is the same treatment used to cure lung cancer caused by smoking.

If you are a smoker and you work around asbestos, you have a higher chance of developing lung cancer.

What to do if you get exposed to asbestos at work?

If you think you accidentally inhaled asbestos in your workplace, the best thing to do is to seek medical advice as soon as possible.

While the possibility of you developing a disease right away is very low, as most symptoms of asbestos-related diseases show decades after, it’s still wise to seek professional help.

You can then report the incident to the management about the asbestos presence in your workplace.

What to do if you’re a manager at a workplace with an asbestos presence?

If the commercial workplace that you own, lease, or manage was built before 2004, there’s a good chance that it has asbestos in it.

And in case you don’t know, you are legally required to have a commercial asbestos register in Melbourne and other parts of Victoria.

If your building doesn’t have one yet, or the asbestos register needs updating, now might be the best time to acquire the said document.

With the help of Greenlight Environmental Services, we can help you detect and clearly outline the location in your building that has asbestos in it.

We can also help you assess the levels of risk of asbestos present in your workplace. This way you can devise a thorough asbestos management plan that will also help you minimise occupational asbestos exposure.

Book an onsite inspection here!

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