A project to renovate a former psychiatric center in New York into a college was fraught with so many hazards that the Department of Labor referred to it as a “worksite of horrors” on its blog.

In visiting the work site in 2013, OSHA found that the workers and employees of 13 contractors were scraping lead paint off walls and handling asbestos debris without using safe removal methods, such as wetting and vacuuming. To top things off, none of the workers were wearing respirators, a fact that potentially exposed them to neurological damage from lead and to fatal lung disease from asbestos.

OSHA put a stop to the work and eventually cited the real estate development company in charge of the operation with 24 willful safety violations. The agency claims that without adequate safety measures, the company put workers at risk of long-term neurological and respiratory problems caused by unsafe lead and asbestos exposure.

The point of this post isn’t to single out a company for unsafe practices, but to illustrate the dangers of working in environments suspected of containing hazardous materials.

Let’s start with asbestos. Exposure to this naturally occurring mineral is a concern for anyone who works in construction and demolition, but it is also poses a constant health risk for those who work or live in buildings that contain the material.
While asbestos has long been valued for its durability and flame resistance, it wasn't until the industrial revolution that these properties were put to widespread use. At about the same time, asbestos became associated with a number of respiratory problems. Today, it is well-documented as a cause of a number of respiratory ailments and as a carcinogen.

Although the use of asbestos is now banned in some products by regulations such as the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Consumer Product Safety Act, many older commercial and residential buildings still harbor asbestos-containing materials. And because asbestos fibers of certain sizes cannot be exhaled, even short-term exposure to greater than naturally occurring levels of the material can lead to health problems.

Building and facility owners are required by law to assess asbestos hazards before beginning any renovation, maintenance or demolition work. A written report must be furnished to contractors and any others who work around any project that involves asbestos. This requirement applies to both newly installed and existing materials.

Product information on labels and safety data sheets should include information on asbestos content when it constitutes more than 0.1 percent of a material, since it is a known carcinogen. But just because there is no asbestos information on a label does not always mean that asbestos is not present. When handling products that may contain asbestos, it should be assumed that it is present unless the manufacturer or a testing laboratory has certified the material to be asbestos free.When in doubt, a thorough building survey with bulk material sampling and analysis by accredited personnel is the only way to prove that a presumed asbestos containing material (PACM) does not contain asbestos.

An accurate asbestos inventory is the foundation for managing a successful operations and maintenance (O&M) program. Site-specific asbestos abatement policies, periodic inspections and exposure monitoring are sound ways for building owners to control asbestos exposure risks to building occupants, residents and visitors.

Then there is lead. Today, we know that lead exposure can damage organs and the cardiovascular and central nervous systems. It also can be harmful in children’s development. But prior to the 1960s – and in some cases up until the late 1970s – the paint used in homes most often was lead based. The EPA established lead-based paint regulations in the 1990s after it was found that millions of children in the United States had been exposed to lead poisoning from paint peeling from walls.

The most common ways for lead to enter the body is through inhalation as a dust or fume or through accidental ingestion. Because it can circulate throughout the body and be deposited in organs and bodily tissues, lead is considered a cumulative and persistent toxic substance. Whether at home or in the workplace, remodeling or renovation projects such as sanding, cutting with saws or torches, and demolition work can yield hazardous lead chips and dust by disturbing lead-based paint, resulting in an unhealthy environment. OSHA’s Lead Standard for the construction industry, Title 29 Code of Federal Regulations 1926.62, addresses lead in a various forms, including metallic lead, all inorganic lead compounds, and organic lead soaps.

Workplace Safety & Health Co. Inc. can provide industry-standard testing for lead-based paint according to OSHA standards. Currently, there are two methods recognized by the EPA for testing paint: X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analysis and paint chip sampling with an analysis by an accredited laboratory. At Workplace Safety, we go another step by using AutoCAD® drawings and photographs to show the location and appearance of each surface coating we analyze. We are equipped to not only identify and evaluate hazards, but to develop corrective action plans that solve your health and safety challenges efficiently and economically.

So, before beginning that next renovation or construction project that you suspect might involve exposure to asbestos or lead, call us first and know for sure.