Asbestos risks and responsibilities
Work health and safety legislation includes responsibilities related to asbestos, a substance that is dangerous when it becomes airborne and is inhaled.
Comcare is the claims manager for two asbestos-related schemes, and carries out enforcement action to protect workers.
If you suspect a product has asbestos
Treat all products containing any amount of asbestos as potentially dangerous if disturbed. A licensed asbestos removalist should remove all asbestos-containing material.
If you are not sure if the material contains asbestos, have the house or material assessed by a qualified occupational hygienist or other suitably qualified professional. If in doubt treat the suspect material as though it does contain asbestos.
For more information about general asbestos safety issues, see the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency or contact your local council.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral that was widely used in building materials and other products up to 1987, and less so up until 1990. Some buildings used cement containing asbestos up until the total ban became effective in 2003. It was popular because it could be woven into fabric, has excellent insulation properties and is chemically inert.
It was commonly used in materials such as roofing, shingles and siding, fencing, exterior wall cladding, textured paints, water and flue pipes bathrooms, interior walls and eaves.
As knowledge of its health dangers increased, the use of asbestos was progressively reduced until a national ban finally came into force in December 2003. This ban prohibited the import, manufacture and use of all forms of asbestos and products containing asbestos.
Asbestos is classified as a substance that causes cancer (known as a carcinogen).
When asbestos is dangerous
Asbestos becomes a hazard when microscopic fibre fragments become airborne and are inhaled. When materials containing asbestos are left undisturbed, they are relatively harmless.
People can inhale asbestos dust or fibres when they handle asbestos or materials containing asbestos without wearing a respirator, face mask or other personal protective equipment.
The health risks from asbestos exposure increase with heavier exposure and longer exposure time. Despite this, asbestos-related diseases have been found in people who were only briefly exposed to asbestos.
Exposure to asbestos dust or fibres can cause a range of lung diseases, diseases of related tissue, asbestosis and mesothelioma—a form of cancer which is usually fatal.
Diseases may develop many years after exposure.
The most significant diseases caused by exposure to asbestos are:
- Asbestosis – a fibrotic disease of the lungs caused by chronic exposure and inhalation of asbestos fibres. Asbestosis spreads throughout the lungs, predominantly damaging the interstitium (the connective tissue between air spaces). The lungs become fibrotic and stiff.
- Asbestos induced carcinoma of the lung – often referred to as bronchogenic carcinoma.
- Asbestos-related pleural disease – a process that usually begins with an inflammation of the pleura that leads to fluid collecting in the space between the lung and the chest wall. This is also commonly referred to as benign asbestos-related pleural effusion.
- Pleural mesothelioma – the most common type of mesothelioma, a rare cancer that develops in the lungs. It is almost solely caused by exposure to asbestos.
- Peritoneal mesothelioma – accounts for 10 to 20 per cent of all mesothelioma cases. The cancer develops in the abdomen over a course of decades after asbestos fibres are inhaled or ingested.
- Pleural plaques – areas of calcification on the lining of the lungs, chest wall, and diaphragm.
For more information, see Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Comcare’s role in asbestos
Comcare has the following roles in relation to asbestos and asbestos exposure.
Regulator and enforcement action
We undertake regulatory activity and carry out enforcement action to protect the health, safety and welfare at work of Australian Government workers and to assist in their early and safe return to work.
To make a complaint about unsafe work involving asbestos:
- Work conducted by a contractor or worker—contact Comcare.
- Licensed removal work at a residence—contact Comcare.
- Work conducted by a neighbour—contact the local council.
- Removal work carried out by the home owner or tenant as part of renovations or demolition work—contact the local council.
- Small removal and maintenance jobs able to be carried out by the home owner or tenant—contact the local council.
Asbestos-related claims manager
We administer two schemes for managing claims made by people diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases and their dependants. These include:
- managing claims for workers’ compensation under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988.
- managing claims for compensation or damages under the Asbestos-related Claims (Management of Commonwealth Liabilities) Act 2005.
For more information:
Your responsibilities with asbestos
The WHS Act and Regulations place obligations and legal duties on the ‘person who conducts a business or undertaking’ (PCBU), officers and workers to make sure workplaces are safe.
The PCBU has responsibilities
Legislation and Regulations
The laws and regulations for asbestos use in the Commonwealth jurisdiction are included in the:
- Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act)
- Work Health and Safety Act Regulations 2011 (WHS Regulations).
Specifically, Asbestos—chapter 8 of the WHS Regulations applies where asbestos-related work is carried out.
Safe Work Australia also provides asbestos-related guidelines, reports and advice.
Codes of Practice
A Code of Practice is a practical guide, approved under the WHS Act.
Codes of Practice which cover asbestos are:
- How to Safely Remove Asbestos Code of Practice
- How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace Code of Practice.
Other Codes of Practice which contain references to asbestos are:
Asbestos support and services
There are several organisations in Australia who provide specialist support services to people who have contracted, or been affected by, an asbestos-related disease.
- Asbestosis and Mesothelioma Association of Australia
- The Australian Lung Foundation
- Cancer Council Australia
Australian Capital Territory
New South Wales
- Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia (ADFA)
- Asbestos Diseases Research Institute
- Bernie Banton Foundation
- Cancer Council NSW
- Cancer Council Victoria
- Asbestos Council of Victoria / Gippsland Asbestos-Related Diseases Support Inc
Australian Government websites
- Australian Mesothelioma Registry
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
- Department of Health
- Department of Jobs and Small Business
- Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency
- Department of Veterans' Affairs
- Safe Work Australia
State and territory government websites
- Asbestos Awareness (NSW)
- Asbestos Compensation Tribunal Tasmania
- Asbestos Queensland
- Asbestos Unit of WorkSafe Tasmania
- icare (NSW)
Links to external websites do not constitute an endorsement or a recommendation of any material on those sites or of any third-party products or services offered by, from or through those sites. Users of the links provided above are responsible for being aware of which organisation is hosting the website they visit.