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Asbestos—what are the work health and safety risks?

Until a national ban on asbestos began in December 2003,it was used in a wide range of industries, materials and products because it can be woven into fabric, has excellent insulation properties and is chemically inert. As knowledge of its health dangers increased, the use of asbestos was progressively prohibited until the ban finally came into force. 

Risks and diseases

Asbestos dust or fibres that are inhaled can cause scarring (fibrosis), infection (effusion) or interaction with a person's immune system (attempted ingestion by macrophages, or white blood cells) leading to genetic damage with resulting carcinomas.

Inhalation of asbestos dust or fibres may occur from handling asbestos—or materials containing asbestos—without wearing a respirator, face mask or other personal protective equipment. Some people appear more susceptible to asbestos-related conditions than others with similar exposures.

Definitions of asbestos-related conditions

The Asbestos-related Claims (Management of Commonwealth Liabilities) Act 2005 defines an asbestos-related condition as asbestosis, an asbestos-induced carcinoma, an asbestos-related non-malignant pleural disease, mesothelioma or any other condition caused by inhaling asbestos dust or fibres.

  • Asbestosis is a chronic and progressive lung disease of varying intensity, in which scarring (fibrosis) of the lung tissue by asbestos dust and fibres restricts lung function.
  • Asbestos-induced carcinomas, the most common of which is lung cancer, with tobacco usage frequently being a significant contributing factor.
  • Asbestos-related non-malignant conditions include pleural plaques (a pleura is a membrane around the lungs), pleural effusion and diffuse pleural thickening, which can but usually do not develop into malignant conditions.
  • Mesothelioma is a malignant disease of the membrane tissue around the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), intestine (peritoneal mesothelium) or heart (pericardial mesothelium), with death occurring within a year of diagnosis.
  • Other conditions—the Act’s definition also makes provision for any yet to be discovered pathological conditions caused by inhaling asbestos dust or fibres.
Page last updated: 20 Mar 2014