Asbestos-based products were widely used in construction from the 1920s to the mid-1980s. Commonly used products that contained asbestos included roof and wall claddings, vinyl floor coverings, sprayed fire protection, decorative ceilings, roofing membranes, adhesives and paints.

Health risks from asbestos

Asbestos can cause asbestosis (lung disease) and lung cancer when inhaled. However, as symptoms often do not appear until 15–20 years after exposure, the danger of asbestos is easily underestimated. WorkSafe says that asbestos is the country’s number one work-related killer, with about 220 people dying each year from preventable asbestos-related disease.

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Testing for asbestos

If you suspect asbestos may be present, the following laboratories are able to test the material:

Dowdell and Associates, Auckland (09 526 0246)

Capital Environmental Services, Wellington (04 566 3311)

K2 Environmental Ltd, Christchurch (03 384 8966) or Auckland (09 275 1261)

Precise Consulting and Laboratory Ltd, Christchurch (03 943 5394)

For cladding or flooring, a sample approximately the size of two $2 coins (or approximately 2 x 3 cm minimum) is required. For decorative ceiling finishes, a minimum of one tablespoonful is required, and this should include any sparkly or stipple material. See the Approved Code of Practice: Management and Removal of Asbestos on the WorkSafe website.

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Licensing for asbestos removal

Work involving asbestos must be carried out by people who are licensed. Three types of licence are available for asbestos removal: Class A (where the biggest risk to health exists), Class B, and an asbestos assessor licence. An asbestos assessor inspects the finished job for Class A removal, provides a clearance certificate, and can also carry out air quality monitoring during removal if required.

No licence is required for asbestos removal:

  • up to and including 10 m2 of non-friable asbestos or asbestos-containing material (ACM), cumulatively, over the whole course of the removal project for the site
  • asbestos-contaminated dust or debris (ACD) that is associated with removing 10 m2 or less of non-friable asbestos or ACM and any associated minor ACD.

Under the Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2016, you must notify WorkSafe New Zealand of licensed asbestos removal work at least 5 days before work commences. You can find more details here.

More details can be found at this WorkSafe page.

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Working with asbestos

Work removing asbestos that does not require a licence must nevertheless be carried out with care. If products containing asbestos are in sound condition and left alone, they do not pose a major risk. The risk occurs when materials are cut, sanded, waterblasted or broken up, resulting in asbestos fibres being released.

When working with asbestos, precautions include:

  • sealing off the work area to minimise exposure to others
  • wearing disposable overalls and cap
  • using a half-facepiece respirator with a class P1 filter suitable for asbestos dust
  • keeping asbestos-based material damp while handling it
  • cleaning up at the completion of each day’s work.

Do not:

  • waterblast the asbestos-based material
  • break sheets or drop them, causing them to break.

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Cleaning up

  • Collect residue from the washing or other work with asbestos while it is still wet and bag in plastic or a closed container.
  • Clearly mark bags/containers ‘Asbestos Hazard – wear respirator and protective clothing while handling the contents’.
  • Dispose of asbestos at a place approved by the local authority and cover immediately with at least 1 m of earth.
  • Vacuum residue and dust from all surfaces (including unsealed drawers and cupboards) using a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter.
  • Wet mop after vacuuming.

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