Protecting Construction Workers from Asbestos Contamination

In theory, most construction workers should never encounter asbestos, which is known to increase the risk of asbestos-related lung disease and cancer when the fibers get airborne and people breathe them in. That’s because employers are required to assess a renovation or demolition project for asbestos prior to starting work using a licensed asbestos inspector. And many states require that asbestos be removed by a licensed contractor.

But work on residential buildings with four units or fewer is excluded from the requirement. And even when asbestos assessment and abatement is required, not all construction companies abide, so workers could find themselves exposed.

Asbestos-containing products are mostly banned today, but some are not. The ones that aren’t include vinyl floor tile, roofing materials and some piping.  

How can contractors and construction companies protect employees from exposure if those smaller residential units are full of asbestos-containing materials or if the inspection of a qualifying project did not reveal, for whatever reason, the asbestos present?

Before workers set foot on site, they need to be educated on which materials could contain asbestos and how to identify them. These materials include insulation, fireproofing, joint compound and tape used in drywall finishing, asphalt and vinyl flooring, cement siding and wallboard and roofing material. Unfortunately, since asbestos continues to be used even today, the age of a building isn’t a surefire indicator of whether asbestos might be present.

If the project is a renovation and the material that contains asbestos is not damaged, there's little to worry about, since asbestos is dangerous only when breathed in. If workers find themselves facing damaged asbestos-containing material, wetting it down will reduce the chances of fiber becoming airborne, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Other steps workers can take to protect themselves until suspect materials are assessed and removed include avoiding the use of dust-raising power tools, sanding equipment, compressed air or high-pressure hoses; not walking on the roof in case of weak areas; and working only in well-ventilated areas when possible. If the area is non-ventilated, workers must use local exhaust systems with HEPA filters.

Until asbestos can be disposed of, workers should be sure to use personal protective equipment such as respirators, and wear special, disposable clothing and foot coverings that will not carry any fibers off the job.

With some planning and education, encountering asbestos on a construction site doesn't have to be a nightmare scenario.


Kim Slowey is a writer who has been active in the construction industry for 25 years and is licensed as a certified general contractor in Florida. She received her BA in Mass Communications/Journalism from the University of South Florida and has experience in both commercial and residential construction.