Mike McKenna, executive director of the BC Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA), says the organization will launch its Asbestos Control Training program (ACT) in spring 2023.
“ACT is a suite of courses on the D2L [Desire to Learn] online learning platform that is designed to sensitize people in the construction industry who deal with asbestos to the dangers it poses,” said McKenna.
Asbestos training is needed, he says, because BC employers are required by law to protect the health and safety of their employees.
“The program isn’t aimed just at asbestos abatement contractors, but at the 240,000 construction workers in the province who are likely to encounter it on the job,” said McKenna.
(Asbestos abatement work includes assessing, removing, repairing, transporting and disposing of materials that may contain asbestos.)
ACT is an initiative of the BCCSA Asbestos Project, which was created in 2019.
Project manager M.J. Whitemarsh says asbestos occurs naturally and has many uses.
“It’s very durable and resistant to high temperatures and has been used for thousands of years,” she said. “For example, the ancient Egyptians used it to make tablecloths more durable.”
Since the days of the pharaohs asbestos has found many more applications, including floor tiles, house siding and building insulation.
Although asbestos is very useful, the tiny fibres are also major health hazards.
In order to protect workers from the dangers posed by asbestos exposure, BCCSA determined a change was needed in workplace culture, to make workers more aware of the hazards posed by asbestos and to show them how to mitigate those risks, says Whitemarsh.
“So, we set out to create a catalogue of best practices, developed by a team of subject matter experts in restoration, renovation and emergency recovery, for dealing with asbestos,” she said. “That’s what ACT is.”
Asbestos Control Training consists of eight courses organized in a sequence of gradually increasing detail and specificity, with videos, animation and quizzes.
“They’re best practices, not regulatory,” said Whitemarsh. “The courses are full of positive messaging that worker safety is the number-one consideration around asbestos.”
Each course will range in price from $30 to $50 and will be available online.
“ACT is affordable, accessible and attainable,” said Whitemarsh. “It will fill the gap between doing the work and actually knowing what you’re doing.”
ACT is being complimented by an Asbestos Control Tool. A proprietary software program which is accessed with a hand-held device, the tool conducts risk assessments on sites where asbestos fibres could be an occupational hazard.
Using a database of historical information of the risks of asbestos exposure associated with various construction materials, tools and tasks, the tool can predict the expected exposures to workers under similar conditions.
Measures to help protect BC workers from the dangers of asbestos exposure have also been proposed by the BC government.
New standards will be introduced under the Workers Compensation Act that will require asbestos abatement contractors to be licensed to operate in BC (the first such regime in Canada) and will require workers and employers who perform this work to complete mandatory safety training and certification.
The government said the proposed amendments will help strengthen existing regulatory requirements for asbestos abatement work.
Until now, BC has lacked a comprehensive licensing and training system for asbestos abatement contractors.
WorkSafeBC has reported unsafe handling and disposal practices by contractors, many of whom allow workers who lack formal training in asbestos safety protocols to perform abatement work.
Gordon Harkness, director of the Risk Analysis Unit at WorkSafeBC, says deaths from asbestos are one of the greatest single causes of workplace fatalities in BC.
“Between 2002 and 2021, there were 1,112 fatalities and 53 deaths in 2021 alone,” said Harkness.
Dr. Paul Demers, director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) in Toronto, says the harm caused by asbestos has been known about for years, but it is still the most common cause of occupational death in Canada, accounting for about one-third of all workplace deaths.
“Asbestos was banned in most uses in Canada by 1990, but there’s still a lot out there and construction workers can come into contact with it when they’re demolishing, repairing or modifying a building,” said Demers. “Despite the ban, we need to be vigilant.”
Asbestos causes mesothelioma (a cancer of the protective lining of the lungs and other internal organs), lung cancer, laryngeal cancer and ovarian cancer.
According to OCRC, eight percent of all lung cancers and 81 percent of all mesotheliomas diagnosed annually are due to asbestos exposure. And most asbestos-related cancers occur among workers employed in manufacturing and construction.