What's this White Stuff? A Contractor's Guide to Asbestos

Many of the construction employers we work with have made a conscious (and well-informed) decision to limit their scope of work to avoid exposing their employees to asbestos. That is, they have decided to leave asbestos abatement to the experts.

Recently, though, we have had several urgent calls requesting assistance when asbestos is unexpectedly found on a job site. We have put together this seven-step “primer” from our experience to be your guide if this happens to you.

This article discusses the requirements of Title 8 of the California Code of Regulations (CCR), section 1529. Any work that disturbs asbestos may also trigger requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health Services, the Contractors State Licensing Board, and local agencies, none of which are discussed here. Also, doing due diligence during the bidding process on the possibility of asbestos exposures is an important topic which we will leave for another article.

It seems you can’t discuss section 1529′s mandates without hearing the phrase “can o’worms”. This short article can only highlight your immediate obligations after a possible exposure. Compliance with 1529 is complex, time-consuming, and expensive. In our experience, there is no section of Title 8 that Cal/OSHA takes more seriously. Their position is that even minimal exposures make the hapless employer subject to all of the subsections of the regulation. If you come across asbestos-containing material (ACM) or presumed ACM (PACM) on a job site, you are probably in violation of a number of 1529′s provisions already. In general, your best defense will be to demonstrate to Cal/OSHA from the beginning that you are as serious about asbestos exposures as they are.

With that introduction, here is our seven-step plan for minimizing your liabilities after discovering asbestos:

  1. Once suspected ACM is spotted on the job the first, and obvious, action to take is to STOP ALL WORK in the area where the discovery occurred. If any of the material or related debris has been removed from the area, track it down. If it is still on the job site, leave it alone. If it has been transported from the job site, find out where it went and immediately inform the waste transportation contractor or dump site of your suspicions.
  2. Next, ISOLATE both the work area and any location where ACM has been deposited. Isolation includes turning off HVAC and other ventilation systems in the area. Erect real barriers, not just caution tape, immediately. These barriers should be designed to minimize exposure to persons outside the regulated area, give notice that the area is restricted, and minimize the number of persons inside the area. If an employer is not interested in doing asbestos abatement work, then no one is authorized to enter the regulated area.
  3. After you have isolated all of the suspected ACM, have a qualified independent consultant or laboratory TEST the material. If the material is confirmed to contain asbestos above OSHA’s action level, have them do an exposure assessment to determine if, and at what concentrations, the asbestos has become airborne.
  4. If the presence of ACM is confirmed, give NOTICE to anyone who may have been exposed to, or may have future contact with, the material.
  5. Whether or not the presence of ACM is confirmed, DISCLOSE the material testing and air monitoring results to all employees, either in writing or by posting. If necessary, the notice should include the corrective measures that have been taken to reduce employee exposure to levels at or below accepted limits. Asbestos is a red-hot issue, especially on construction sites. The more information you can give to employees to alleviate their fears of exposure and illness, the better.
  6. Subsection (k)(7) of 1529 also requires that you POST SIGNS at each regulated area. The signs must read:

    DangerAsbestosCancer and Lung Disease HazardAuthorized Personnel Only

    Your signs must also notify employees and others if respirator use is required in the area.

  7. Lastly, you have only 24 hours to NOTIFY the property owner and all other employers on the job that ACM or PACM has been discovered on the job. The regulation does not require that notice be given to building tenants or neighbors. However, if it is likely that tenants or neighbors have had, or will have, contact with the ACM, best practice is to provide them with notice.

    Once testing is complete and notice given, someone must hire a well-qualified contractor to complete the abatement work. Then wait for the all-clear testing report before sending employees back into the affected area.

A final word: Whether or not you plan to work with asbestos, providing your employees with TRAINING in how to recognize ACM and PACM is the most important thing you can do to protect them and yourself. With each of the calls we have received on this issue, we have been impressed by the fact that even though the companies made the decision to avoid working with asbestos, their employees all knew what the white stuff was when they saw it and were able to take steps to avoid a larger problem. These companies were able to do this because they had all provided their employees with the training they needed to identify materials that may (and in these cases did) contain asbestos.