Asbestos exposure: how to make a correct risk assessment


Emma Potter

On the Dangers of asbestos and on damage to health that can cause there is a vast literature (which is worth consulting) and by now everyone, more or less, knows the severity of the risk itselfalso because, since the historical moment of the banning of asbestos in Italy, there has been a proliferation of rules that have regulated, over time, the methods for managing materials, risk assessment, the requirements of companies dedicated to remediation, the characteristics of analysis laboratories, professional training, etc.

A relatively recent beautiful awareness campaign had as its motto: “The word Asbestos has a strange sound: it starts as “love” and ends as “weeping””. In fact, it is so: the love for this material exploded in the 60s and 70s, when practically everything seemed destined to be produced with this fibre which, by virtue of its physical and mechanical properties, seemed to guarantee eternal life (hence the name of a ‘well-known’ manufacturing industry) to any derived product and found itself having a a diffusion that is nothing short of sensational.

Unfortunately, we all know the part about the “crying” and, even today, precisely because of its peculiar characteristics (and the antiquity of many buildings in Italy), Asbestos still poses a major riskeven and especially in certain production and work sectors.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral fibre already present in nature and with very interesting characteristics as it is resistant to high temperatures, the action of chemical agents and mechanical action. So flexible that it can be spun as well as being an excellent sound-absorbing material. Unfortunately, this material is not eternal (as previously thought) and has the characteristic of to crumble and shrink (even if slightly disturbed) in very thin fibres which disperse in the air and, unfortunately, can be inhaled, causing serious pathologies in exposed subjects.

Precisely for the reasons indicated, it was necessary to banned in Italy by law no. 257/1992. The problem is, as already mentioned, that, precisely because of their characteristics, asbestos minerals have been employed everywhere and with multiple functions.

In the’industry served as a raw material for producing manufactured goods of all types and makes; it was used as a thermal insulator in industrial cycles with high and low temperatures (from thermal power stations to refrigeration systems), as a fire barrier and as a sound-absorbing material. In the sector of transport It has been used to produce elements subjected to thermal stress, such as brakes and clutches (also in the railway sector) but also in paints and insulation for ships and airplanes.

The sector builder It is the one that has seen the greatest use, combined with cement, for the production of pipes for aqueducts, sewers and sheets (Eternit), but also as a coating to increase fire resistance and in false ceiling panels, to promote thermal and acoustic insulation. Even today it is possible to find artifacts, such as tubs, radiators or stoves produced with asbestos.

Minerals subject to restrictions

To date, the minerals still used but affected by very strong limitations (art. 247 – Definitions) are the fibrous varieties of:

  • Chrysotile (Serpentine type – white asbestos – CAS 12001-29-5) – the most widely used type;
  • Amosite (Amphibole – brown asbestos – CAS 12172-73-5);
  • Crocidolite (Amphibole – blue asbestos – CAS 12001-28-4);
  • Tremolite (Amphibole – CAS 14567-73-8);
  • Anthophyllite (Amphibole – CAS 77536-67-5);
  • Actinolite (Amphibole – CAS 12172-67-7).

How to make a correct risk assessment

In light of the widespread diffusion of this dangerous carcinogen, the importance of a correct risk assessmentespecially in the construction sector, and the consequent application of all regulatory indications. Within the Consolidated Law on health and safety, the risk from asbestos is the subject of Title IX “Dangerous Substances”, Chapter III “Protection from risks associated with exposure to asbestos”from theart. 246 to theart. 261.

For the purposes of specific risk assessment the premise established by the appears to be fundamentalart. 248 Detection of the presence of asbestos which establishes that before undertaking any demolition or maintenance workthe employer adopts, also by requesting information from the owners of the premises, all necessary measures aimed at identifying the presence of materials potentially containing asbestos. And in fact, if there is the slightest doubt about the presence of asbestos in a material or construction, the employer will have to devote itself to the appropriate evaluation and, if necessary, to all the consequent mitigation and protection actions.

A further step, in fact, is that of understand what the evaluation results from above mentioned, because, in the cases listed below, the DdL is “lightened” by some obligations:

  • short, non-continuous maintenance activities during which work is performed only on non-friable materials;
  • removal without deterioration of non-degraded materials in which asbestos fibres are firmly bound to a matrix;
  • encapsulation and confinement of asbestos-containing materials that are in good condition;
  • monitoring and control of the air and taking samples to identify the presence of asbestos in a given material.

The duties required of the employer

In the cases (very frequent) in which these conditions are not met, the first obligation required of the employer is to make an electronic notification (art. 250) where, with particular reference to the issue of exposure to risk, it is necessary to indicate the number of workers involved (exposed) and the duration of the works.

It should be noted, however, that the law provides for a sort of specific “qualification” of companies suitable for operating in asbestos remediation 256in fact, it is established that demolition or asbestos removal works can be carried out only by companies that meet the requirements of which in theArticle 212 of the Legislative Decree 3 April 2006, n. 152providing that the company be registered in a specific Register of Environmental Managers, established at the Ministry of the Environment and Protection of Land and Sea (now the Ministry of the Environment and Energy Security).

The employer of these companies, before starting demolition or asbestos removal work, is required to: preparation of a work plan (called Removal Plan) which must include, among other things, all the measures adopted for the protection, including individual protection, of exposed workers, the measures for decontamination of the personnel in charge (art. 252) of the works, as well as the measures for the protection of third parties and for the collection and disposal of materials.

Errors and critical issues in asbestos risk assessment

The most significant criticality for exposure to asbestos is due to long latency period between exposure and the onset of pathological symptoms, a frequent reason for underestimating the exposure itself.

The construction sector It is probably one of the most criticalsince the possible presence of asbestos products, for example in the case of renovation of existing buildings, is (unfortunately also intentionally) underestimated, failing to activate the correct mitigation procedures required by the law and not preparing the necessary risk assessments which, in addition to regarding the DVR, they must also be included in the companies’ Operational Safety Plan and in the Construction Site Safety and Coordination Plan.