Asbestos laws and regulations were created by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government agencies in the 1970s to limit asbestos exposure and to create safer environments, including workplaces. Since asbestos creates significant health risks, including an increased risk of cancer, regulations are in place to protect the general public and employees who may work with the material. Asbestos rules concern reporting asbestos, the correct ways to remove old, damaged asbestos, and regulations to control the buying, manufacturing, and selling of asbestos-containing products. Companies that don’t follow these laws could face fines and jail time, putting their employees’ health at risk.
What Is Asbestos and What Are Its Health Risks?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring material fiber once mined in North America, Africa, and Europe and is still mined in China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, and Brazil. It was initially considered a safe material since it is a durable fire retardant, so it was used widely in clothing, building materials, car parts, military machinery, engines, and other consumer products.
In the 1970s, however, it was discovered that asbestos poses serious health risks. When the material is burned or damaged, small fibers can become airborne and can be inhaled. Breathing in asbestos fibers can lead to scarring and damage to the lungs, often going undiscovered until decades after exposure first occurs. In some cases, this can lead to fluid collecting in the lungs. A range of medical conditions have been linked to asbestos exposure, which are known generally as asbestosis. The most serious risk of asbestos exposure is cancer, notably mesothelioma, which damages the lining of the lungs and can be deadly.
How Can I Know if My Business Premises Contain Asbestos?
If your building dates back to the 1980s, or major renovations were completed on the premises before the 1980s, there is a high chance you may have asbestos. About 20% of business and public buildings in the United States do. Asbestos may be contained in ceiling tiles, paint, shingles, flooring, machinery, pipe insulation, and other materials.
It is impossible to tell just by looking at whether your commercial property has asbestos. The only way to know for sure is to have samples of building materials sent to a lab for testing or to have an asbestos contractor evaluate your property.
What Can I Do If My Business Property Contains Asbestos?
If you suspect your business property contains asbestos, the first step is to contact an asbestos contractor who can evaluate your building materials. The exposure risk is highest when asbestos is damaged or when work is being done on a building. About two-thirds of buildings have some damaged asbestos, and half have asbestos that is seriously damaged.
If your building falls into one of these categories, you may need to have the asbestos removed or covered, usually with a protective wrap made from polyethylene or another non-porous material. It is important to have an experienced asbestos professional cover or remove asbestos since disturbing the material in any way can release fibers into the air. If you are planning or undergoing any renovations, you will also need to alert your state agency and follow all correct practices for removing asbestos.
If you suspect or know you have asbestos on your premises, you may also want to:
- Train your employees on asbestos safety: You can use Connecteam to create video training to help your team avoid exposure. It’s crucial to train your employees in reporting any damage to building materials and to share the importance of not disturbing any building materials.
- Check on the condition of building materials regularly: If you notice leaks, flaking, breaks, cracks, or any other damage, contact an asbestos professional to arrange repairs.
- Provide adequate protective equipment: Workers in the construction, mining, shipbuilding, and transportation industries may be more at risk of asbestos exposure. If your workers fall into these categories, ensure you provide quality protective material.
- Check before buying inventory or materials from other countries: Asbestos laws and regulations in the United States and European Union are stricter than in other countries. Before importing materials, machinery, supplies, or other products, check the asbestos laws and regulations of the country where the products originated and confirm they do not contain asbestos. You may want to only import from countries with stronger asbestos laws since you could be held liable if the products you import cause harm to others.
What Asbestos Laws and Regulations Could Affect My Business?
Asbestos regulations are designed to protect the public, employees, and the environment. There are a number of laws and regulations overseen by two main government agencies:
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
EPA’s Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) laws (§ 61.145), including the Clean Air Act (CAA), require you to alert a state agency if your building has asbestos and you plan on demolishing or renovating the space. The EPA can also instruct companies or businesses to remove asbestos from a property.
During renovations, you must also follow all current procedures to protect others against exposure. This may include containing and wetting down asbestos during renovations and storing and disposing of it safely. Statute 42 USC 7413(1) outlines the penalties for violating the Clean Air Act. These penalties can include up to five years in prison.
Some industries and workplaces get additional protection under the EPA. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), for example, and the Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools rule mandate that schools are inspected for asbestos and actions are taken to remove or limit exposure in schools. Funding was made available for these activities under the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Reauthorization Act (ASHARA).
The EPA also regulates the trading and manufacturing of asbestos-containing products. While almost all these products have now been discontinued, some can still be purchased or sold. If you want to buy or sell products on the EPA list, you must contact the agency at least 90 days ahead of time. If you want to make asbestos-containing products, the Asbestos Information Act (Public Law 100-577) requires you to report these products to the EPA.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
OSHA’s laws (29 CFR 1910.1001) relate to preventing exposure in the workplace. These regulations require you to dispose of any asbestos-containing materials safely and may mandate high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in the workplace to lower the risk for your employees.
OSHA’s Asbestos General Standard outlines requirements for employee training regarding asbestos, including correct labeling of asbestos-containing material, correct disposal of asbestos, and protective gear required for workers who may be exposed. OSHA also limits asbestos exposure to 0.1 fibers of asbestos per cubic centimeter of air, measured by an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA). The related Asbestos Construction Standard covers many of these same topics, but specifically for construction work.
Some employees are exposed to asbestos by the nature of their work, and these workers are excluded from OSHA asbestos protections. For these workers, the EPA Asbestos Worker Protection Rule requires OSHA-excluded workers to receive protections from their employers.
Two other government agencies also have asbestos rules. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) rules ban or limit many products that contain asbestos. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has rules in place specifically to protect miners. These rules may require employers to provide protective equipment and engineering controls, among other protections. These rules also set asbestos exposure limits.
In addition to penalties established by government agencies, companies who expose employees to asbestos can face civil lawsuits, too. Many states also have their own asbestos laws, so be sure to check all that apply to you. California’s Title 8, for example, requires schools to keep documentation related to asbestos remediation for 30 years and expects businesses to follow specific rules for documenting employee exposure and reducing asbestos-related risks.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring but dangerous material that was used in many products, machines, and buildings until the 1980s. Today’s laws aim to limit exposure and reduce associated health risks for you and your employees. If your business premises need repairs or are to be demolished, you may need to check for asbestos first and follow the relevant laws and guidelines for safe renovations.