A cleaner is vacuuming in an office and he notices more dust than usual on the desks and floor. A maintenance crew was in earlier in the day, punching through sheetrock and stringing computer cable — a common activity in today’s business environments. But cleaning up this dust is more than extra work — it could be an environmental health hazard if done frequently.

That’s because many of the construction materials used prior to 1981 are asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) that could have negative health effects on cleaning workers who don’t know what to look for. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are ACMs in more than 700,000 U.S. public and commercial buildings, as well as in more than 100,000 primary and secondary schools.

While these materials often are harmless if intact, they can expose workers to dangerous fibers if disturbed by renovations or specific cleaning tasks. In fact, the janitorial industry was the 12th most-cited industry violating the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) asbestos regulations during the last year, with 24 citations. The only other industries with higher incidence rates were in the construction or renovation fields, some with only a few more citations.

While it would be alarmist to say that all cleaning workers could be exposed to asbestos dangers in their daily routines, it is reasonable for building service contractors to discern which facilities they service might have asbestos-related concerns and to educate their workers regarding how to handle any contact situations.

“There is a substantial amount that’s known about the hazards of asbestos,” says Dr. Gregory Wagner, director of the Respiratory Disease study division for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “The critical issue is making sure that people know when asbestos is present and receive adequate protection. Exposure control is the only effective means of prevention.”

The facts
Asbestos is strong, yet flexible, and is famous for its ability to resist flame and heat. At the end of World War II and for the next 30 years, asbestos was used extensively for school construction and renovation, as well as in floor, ceiling and wall materials in commercial settings.

Now, asbestos is found in as many as 3,000 commercial products in concentrations ranging from 1 percent to 100 percent, according to the EPA. Some of those products include vinyl floor tile and adhesives, insulation, textured paints, coatings, ceiling tiles, HVAC duct insulation, roofing shingles and felt, and even chalkboards.

Health concerns
Asbestos exposure has been linked to serious and often fatal health problems. Diseases such as asbestosis (a non-cancerous respiratory disease), and mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer), have been directly linked to asbestos exposure.

Most asbestos exposure is the result of inhaling airborne fibers. The fibers can easily penetrate body tissues — especially airways and lungs — where they can remain undetected for years. OSHA’s acceptable asbestos-fiber-exposure limits state that a worker may not exceed 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of air (0.1 f/cc) averaged over the 8-hour workday, and 1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air (1.0 f/cc) averaged over a 30 minute work period.

Exposure can be occupational (as a result of work performed); paraoccupational (families of workers who may come in contact with asbestos through fibers brought home on clothing); or neighborhood (people who live or work in places where asbestos is released into the air).

A single exposure while cleaning isn’t likely to harm workers, but repeat exposure while refinishing asbestos-containing floors or repeat clean-ups after asbestos-containing materials were disturbed could increase BSC employees’ risks of illness.

The EPA estimates 27 million Americans had significant occupational exposure to asbestos between 1940 and 1980. And cleaning workers were reported as having the 10th highest industry incidence rate of asbestosis according to the “Work-Related Lung Disease Surveillance Report” in 1996. But officials point out that the mere presence of asbestos does not necessarily constitute a risk. Several factors must be considered in order to determine the danger.

One of the most important considerations in determining worker exposure is whether ACMs are friable or non-friable. A friable asbestos material is one that, when dry, can easily crumble and release asbestos fibers. Examples of friable ACMs are fluffy, spray-applied fireproofing or decorative “popcorn” ceilings. Non-friable ACMs are materials that are not likely to release fibers under normal use. Many vinyl floor tiles are non-friable.

There are billions of square feet of asbestos-containing flooring in the U.S, says Larry McGurk, president of UAS Automation Systems Inc., an Orlando, Fla.- based company specializing in asbestos floor removal.

“Basically, any floor put down prior to January 1981, in all probability is ACM,” he says.

While these tiles do not release asbestos fibers under normal use, they can do so during stripping, buffing or other aggressive activities — a definite repeat exposure concern for hard-floor-care staff.

“The only sure way to identify it is by taking a sample and having it analyzed by an accredited lab,” says Robert Vick, Asbestos Coordinator for the EPA’s Denver office.

The condition of the materials also is an important factor. Damaged ACMs are more likely to release dangerous fibers than are those in good condition.

Finally, the risk of exposure is dependent upon the concentration of asbestos in the air, the length of the exposure and whether or not the worker wore protective equipment.

Researchers also have determined that age is a critical factor in asbestos risk. The younger the person, the more likely he or she could develop asbestos-related diseases following exposure because of the longer dwell time of the fibers trapped in the body.

If You Find Asbestos
The EPA only requires asbestos be removed if there is the likelihood of a significant public exposure – such as during building renovation or demolition.The rest of the time, experts recommend in-place management. BSCs should be able to ask their customers where ACMs are in their buildings and if there are any concerns about their maintenance.

“Most public buildings have some asbestos control/identification plans in place,” says Wagner. “If this is not the case, it’s the responsibility of the employer to determine whether or not asbestos is present.”

Asbestos management includes routine monitoring of ACMs to make sure these materials are not deteriorating. Because BSC employees often clean these surfaces or work near them, they also can be an extra set of eyes for their customers when tracking ACM deterioration.

Assessing the BSC risk
Routine cleaning operations should pose very little risk to workers in areas where asbestos containing materials remain, says NIOSH’s Wagner. “I think the biggest concern would be where either spray-on asbestos soundproofing or fireproofing or insulating materials were used around pipes or electrical conduits. As the materials deteriorate, dust can accumulate.”

Workers routinely cleaning up that dust could be at risk of harmful exposure. That dust will be more prominent when friable ACM ceiling tiles are damaged or replaced. Even replacing fluorescent light bulbs could cause potentially hazardous dust to fall, says Wagner.

OSHA officials also advise cleaning workers not to scrape or rub walls and ceilings made from ACMs. The idea is not to disturb these porous materials that could release asbestos fibers.

Stripping and polishing floors can be very dangerous for cleaning workers says UAS Automation’s McGurk. He recommends using EPA guidelines to keep exposure to a minimum.

When cleaning up questionable dust, Wagner suggests using a closed vacuum system and personal respirators for reducing worker risks. Vick also suggests using vacuums with HEPA filters that will trap the dust and fibers rather than releasing them back into the air for workers to inhale.

Depending on what kind of cleaning is involved, federal regulations also may require personal protective gear when vacuuming. For OSHA’s asbestos protection recommendations, click here.

“In most cases, you won’t need an environmental consultant for general cleaning,” Vick says. “But you will need effective training according to the level of work you’re going to be involved with.”

EPA Floor Burnishing Guidelines
In a published report entitled “Project Summary: Airborne Asbestos Concentrations During Buffing of Resilient Floor Tile,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency** found machine speed appears to have a significant effect on the amount and types of asbestos fibers released into the air.

Cleaning workers also may benefit from the following EPA floor stripping suggestions:

  • Perform work in off-hours when fewer people are exposed.
  • Strip floors infrequently – only once or twice a year.
  • Properly train staff.
  • Follow appropriate work practices under careful supervision.
  • Strip floors while wet. Do not perform ANY dry-machine stripping.
  • Run machines at slow speeds —between 175 and 330 rpm.
  • Use the least abrasive pad possible.

**For OSHA’s Floor Cleaning Regulations, reference 29 CFR 1910.1001, k7.

Jennifer Jones is a business writer based in Salt Lake City.