Guest Column | February 20, 2015

Asbestos Pipe Safety Awareness And Compliance

Sheldon Primus

By Sheldon Primus

The distribution system for water treatment has several hazards especially asbestos cement piping. The operator is exposed to this hazard during line repair and replacement because they must disturb the asbestos in order to complete their job. Each time this work is done, operators must protect themselves through various hazard-control methods. This article will highlight the asbestos pipe safety awareness, techniques, and compliance concerns, including trenching and excavation.

In older communities, cement piping was regularly used for the water distribution system. It was common to have asbestos used in this cement piping to strengthen the pipe. In addition, asbestos cement pipe was often used because it is less expensive than cast iron piping. It is also lighter than iron pipe and easier to install and to tap. However, asbestos cement pipe is a carcinogen if released in air when making repairs.

Asbestos-containing material (ACM) or presumed asbestos-containing material (PACM), when disturbed, is known to cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, or lung cancer. Generally speaking, the symptoms of asbestos-caused diseases do not appear until 10 to 35 years after the exposure from the material. Friable asbestos, the dry, powder-like form, is a significant risk to workers and anyone in the immediate area.

In addition to asbestos exposure, the operator that is responding to a line break has to cut through concrete, which is known to contain silica sand. This silica exposure can create silicosis in the lungs if inhaled during the process of getting to the water main break for repair. Therefore, it is important that the distribution operator protects their respiratory system from any asbestos and silica. Selecting the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for respiratory protection is necessary and required in some states.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires in subpart I 29 CFR 1910 that a written PPE hazard assessment must be conducted by the employer for each task or job description. Hazards associated with asbestos cement pipe repair in the distribution system includes, but is not limited to:

  • trenching and excavation hazards
  • cave-ins
  • caught in between
  • asbestos exposure
  • silica exposure
  • lacerations
  • overexertion
  • head injury
  • etc.

Some states have required protection for municipal workers from occupational hazards through a state OSHA plan. However, other states do not have a state OSHA plan, therefore it is up to the individual municipalities to protect their own workers. For instance, some states require that a trench permit be acquired prior to any trench work being done, including for municipal workers. So in order to repair the ACM pipe, the municipality would have to request the trench permit and then complete the permit after the emergency repair has been completed.

An important step, prior to digging, is to call the national 811 number to locate underground utility lines. This will avoid any additional hazards such as electrical burns or electrocution if the trench work exposes live electrical lines. A competent person must be responsible for checking the excavation prior to entry. The check would include a soil analysis and monitoring for any hazardous condition present.

When it’s time for the workers to begin cutting through concrete or asbestos cement, is important that the workers have the proper respiratory protection. A N95 particulate mask, which is a two-strap filtering facepiece, is not sufficient enough to protect against friable asbestos. A half-face respirator with a 100-percent particulate filter would be proper minimum respiratory protection.

State OSHA programs require that in order for a worker to wear a respirator, they must first have a medical clearance and fit testing. The medical questionnaire and fit testing is performed on either an annual basis, or if there’s a change in the person’s facial features, the worker has experienced a heart attack, or the worker has been diagnosed with a respiratory ailment within that year.

At the job site, the workers are suggested to adhere to the following procedures at a minimum:

  • post trench permit, if required
  • verify that minimum PPE has been provided
    • HEPA filter cartridges for respirator
    • disposable coveralls with a hood and booties
    • safety glasses with side shields
    • hardhat
    • hearing protection
  • perform a job safety briefing
  • set up a decontamination area or have plenty of water available for flushing work uniforms
  • create a work zone traffic control area
  • have a minimum of 6 mL poly bags for disposal of ACM pipe
  • durable tape to tape ACM pipe in plastic bags
  • stickers labeled: “Danger: Contains Asbestos Fiber, Avoid Creating Dust. Cancer and Lung Disease Hazard.” …or any identifying sticker to warn of asbestos danger

When cutting the ACM or PACM and material, it is best to use a wet method of cutting and avoid using cement saws that will generate dust. The use of the snap cutter would be better than a chop saw or pipe saw, because the snap cutter does not generate excessive dust.

Proper disposal of ACM and PACM material is a critical step to compliance. The operator must check with local regulatory agencies and landfills to find their procedure for disposal of ACM and PACM material. Each piece of pipe must be wrapped two times, at minimum, and taped up securely at the ends and in the middle to avoid airborne ACM or leaching of liquid from the wet cutting that contains asbestos.

Some states require training for workers that do asbestos abatement and supervisors of workers that do asbestos abatement. Therefore, you must check your state or local regulatory agencies to make sure that you’re in complete compliance with these rules. Most of these trainings involve a 40-hour course for each level of certification, or a 16-hour course for a maintenance worker involved in asbestos abatement. In addition to the required initial courses, an approved annual 4-hour refresher course for maintenance workers and an 8-hour refresher course for asbestos abatement supervisors and abatement workers are required.

Asbestos safety awareness is paramount to protecting the workers and to reduce the risk of cancer-causing exposure. Each municipality should take the safety of the worker and the general public in consideration when doing tasks with ACM or PACM. For more information, please refer to the asbestos safety guidance on the EPA website: