Few things trigger such an immediate and alarming response as the presence of asbestos. Most people know they do not want to be around it, and that if they come into contact with it, they could possibly suffer serious medical complications in the future. Inhaling loose asbestos fibers is known to cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, though in many cases it may take may take more than a decade before symptoms of illness become apparent. Every year, thousands of people are diagnosed with these diseases and can attribute them to past exposure that occurred in an industrial or commercial setting.
Unfortunately the boiler industry is one of these affected industries. A 2005 survey found that, of the 163,000 industrial and commercial boilers currently in use in North America, the majority were more than 30 years old. Many of these boilers have now been replaced with modern versions. Still, some boilers manufactured before or during the 1970s — when the dangers of asbestos first became public knowledge — are still in use. Until the latter part of that decade, the strong insulating and fire-retardant properties of asbestos made it a principal ingredient in lagging/insulation, gaskets, cements, tape, refractory lining and millboard in many boiler rooms.
Luckily, asbestos fibers only pose a genuine threat when released into the air and inhaled. By taking proper precautions, existing materials that contain the substance can be managed to ensure employee safety. There are three steps necessary to limit exposure to asbestos fibers: identifying where it is located within your facility, monitoring the material’s condition, and making sure the material is not disturbed. First, identify which materials in your boiler room contain asbestos and label them with warning so others will be aware. Next, make sure you regularly inspect the materials to see if they have degraded enough to cause concern, or if they have been damaged. Finally, refrain from disturbing asbestos-containing materials; according to OSHA, ‘disturbing’ involves “any activity that crumbles, pulverizes, generates visible debris or otherwise disrupts asbestos.”
Keep in mind that even bumping into some loose insulation can release fibers into the air, so extra care should be taken when regular maintenance is being performed on or around your boiler. Poor lighting can make it difficult to see, which could cause a repair person to accidentally disturb the asbestos in gaskets or insulation, so providing a well-lit workspace can reduce that risk. If asbestos is left alone and prevented from getting loose in the air, it should not be an issue.
Eventually, situations may arise in which it becomes necessary to interact with asbestos within your boiler room. With the proper training, protective gear and safety procedures, asbestos can be effectively handled. Prior to handling it, OSHA requires the area be isolated and contained to prevent asbestos contamination of the surrounding areas, so that means sealing off the boiler room — preferably with a negative pressure containment area. All workers should have proper respirators with HEPA filters to protect them from the microscopic fibers, and it is advisable to wear a disposable suit for easier decontamination.
When cleaning up and disposing of asbestos:
- Wet down the material to make it harder for the fibers to come loose and go airborne, and use only HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaners to pick up debris from the floor. Do not sweep with a broom.
- Use wet wipes to clean up any areas where asbestos was present, and dispose of everything in proper asbestos trash bags that have been labeled correctly and are destined for approved landfills.
- After the work is complete, exposed employees should carefully discard their disposable suits in the asbestos trash bags, thoroughly clean their respirators, and shower as soon as possible to prevent the spread of any fibers that may be lingering on them.