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Volume 2, Issue 5 - May 2004

In the News
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Health and Safety Advisory: Vermiculite Insulation May Contain Asbestos

When the Libby Mine in Montana began production of vermiculite ore in the 1920s, the mineral was becoming well known for its fire-resistant and insulation qualities. The Libby Mine supplied the majority of the world market with vermiculite-based insulation, and sold it in Canada as Zonolite Attic Insulation, and possibly other brand names, until 1990.

Today, vermiculite from the Libby Mine is known for a far less-desirable trait: it may contain asbestos, a known respiratory hazard and cancer-causing substance. For this reason it has not been widely used since the mid-1980s, and has been off the market in Canada for the past 10 years. As recently as March 2004, however, Health Canada issued a health advisory to the public, warning of the possible presence of asbestos fibres in some vermiculite insulation. These asbestos fibres, said the advisory, may pose a respiratory health risk if disturbed during maintenance, renovation or demolition.

The Health Canada advisory followed national media coverage of members of a Manitoba family afflicted with mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. The attic of the family home contained vermiculite insulation contaminated with asbestos.

What you should know about the risk

  • Not all vermiculite contains asbestos fibres. However, to be safe and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable to assume that if buildings have older vermiculite-based insulation, it may contain some asbestos.
  • When inhaled, asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis (a scarring of the lungs which makes breathing difficult), mesothelioma (a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity) and lung cancer.
  • The health risk is related to the inhalation of airborne asbestos liberated by the disturbance of the insulation.
  • There is currently no evidence of risk to health if the insulation is enclosed behind wallboards and floorboards, isolated in an attic, or otherwise kept from exposure to the interior environment.
  • There is no evidence that vermiculite currently available for horticultural purposes (e.g., potting soil), poses any danger when used as directed.

Safety precautions

  • Do not allow children to play in an attic with open areas of vermiculite-based insulation. Make sure anyone working in the attic knows about the possible presence of asbestos.
  • Do not use the attic for storage if retrieving items from it may disturb the insulation. Avoid disturbing vermiculite-based insulation in any way.
  • If you must go into the attic, walk on boards in order to minimize disturbance of the insulation. Use an appropriate respirator mask (common dust masks are NOT effective against asbestos fibres). Do not remain in the attic any longer than necessary.
  • If you have vermiculite-based insulation and decide to have it removed, have trained and qualified asbestos removal professionals handle the job. NEVER attempt to remove the insulation yourself.
  • If you plan to remodel or renovate in a manner that would disturb the vermiculite, speak to trained, qualified asbestos removal professionals before proceeding.
  • Seal all cracks and holes in the ceilings of the rooms below the insulation (for example, apply caulking around light fixtures, ceiling fans and the attic hatch) to prevent insulation from sifting through.
  • Even if you suspect you have vermiculite-based insulation in your walls, as a precautionary step, seal all cracks and holes. For example, apply caulking around window and doorframes, along baseboards and around electrical outlets.
  • The best way to minimize the risk of asbestos exposure is to avoid disturbing vermiculite-based insulation in any way.
  • If you work in a building that may contain vermiculite insulation containing asbestos, direct your concerns to the custodian department. In leased and owned buildings, they are responsible to ensure the building is safe for occupancy, on behalf of tenant departments.

Hazard Alerts
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Powered mobile equipment

An inexperienced worker faced with the opportunity to operate a shiny new bulldozer might think, "How hard can it be?" As easy as it may seem to operate powered mobile equipment, it does take special training and skills, responsible work practices, and careful attention to safety at all times. A lax attitude is the most common cause of accidents involving such heavy equipment — such as the potato harvester that ran over a 59-year-old woman, or the one-ton company truck that ran over a landscaper. These accidents are often fatal.

The Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC) of New Brunswick has issued a hazard alert for workers who use powered mobile equipment and recommends preventive actions for workers, operators, supervisors and employers.

Before walking around powered mobile equipment, make sure to establish eye contact with the operator. Learn to identify danger zones and stay clear of them. It is important to be alert and keep an eye out for hazards to yourself and your co-workers. Report close calls and unsafe conditions to your supervisor.

Before operating equipment, always complete a 360-degree visual check. Be careful of blind spots and have a co-worker act as a signaler and as your second set of eyes if your view is obstructed. Check that all safety guards and devices are in place, especially the audible back-up alarms. Apply the "no extra riders" rule and use your seatbelt and wear hearing protection. Finally, drive safely.

Supervisors, employers, and owners
Ensure operators are competent in the use of powered mobile equipment, based on their knowledge, training and experience. Review training regularly - never assume that a worker knows how to operate and work around equipment safely. Ensure the equipment is properly maintained - guards, brakes, and back-up alarms should be checked regularly. Ensure that safety devices are not de-activated and that seatbelts are worn when required. Pay attention to safety concerns and particularly to close calls.

OSH Answers
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Emergency showers and eyewash stations

Anyone who works with hazardous chemicals knows they can work safely and avoid injury if they follow appropriate safety precautions. However, accidents can happen. And when a corrosive chemical gets into the eyes or on the face or body — the first 10 to 15 seconds are the most critical for preventing injury. If treatment is delayed, even for a few seconds, serious injury may be caused.

That’s where emergency showers and eyewash stations come in, providing workers with on-the-spot decontamination and the ability to flush hazardous substances away.

There are different types of units available – emergency showers, eyewash stations and combination units. The type of protection selected should match the hazard, and the chemicals that are used at the workplace. Conducting a job hazard analysis will help you identify this information.

Emergency showers are designed to flush the user’s head and body. These are NOT for flushing the eyes, because the water pressure may be too great and could damage the eyes.

Eyewash stations are designed to flush the eye and face area only.

Combination units contain both an emergency shower and an eyewash station and enable any part or all of the body to be flushed. They are the most protective emergency devices and should be used wherever possible.

How long should the “flushing” take?
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Standard for Emergency Eyewash and Shower Equipment (ANSI Z358.1-1998) recommends that the affected body part must be flushed immediately and thoroughly for at least 15 minutes using a large supply of clean fluid under low pressure. Water does not neutralize contaminants -- it only dilutes and washes them away.

Other references recommend a minimum 20-minute flushing period if the nature of the contaminant is not known, however, the time can be modified if the identity and properties of the chemical are known. For example:

  • A minimum 5-minute flushing time is recommended for mildly irritating chemicals,
  • 15- 20 minutes for moderate-to-severe irritants,
  • At least 20 minutes for non-penetrating corrosives, and
  • At least 60 minutes for penetrating corrosives.

Remember to always keep a clear, unobstructed path to the emergency shower or eyewash station at all times, and to frequently test the unit to ensure it is well maintained and operating correctly.

A note about water temperature
The water should be tepid, in the general temperature range of 27 to 35ºC (about 80-95ºF). The goal is that the water temperature be tolerable, to allow for a thorough rinsing. Remember that this can take a minimum of 5 minutes for mild irritants and sometimes as long as 60 minutes. The water must not be too hot or too cold for the worker to bear.

Consult your local occupational health and safety agency in your jurisdiction and check relevant legislation for any requirements to install this equipment. Currently there is no Canadian standard for the design or placement of eyewash stations or emergency showers. As a result, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Standard Z358.1-1998 "Emergency Eyewash and Shower Equipment" is generally used as a guide.

Partner News
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Trinational OSH Web Site

The Trinational Occupational Safety and Health Working Group under the North American Agreement on Labour Cooperation (NAALC) has launched a Web site, to promote and improve safety in the workplace. The NAALC, a supplemental agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), has a mandate to protect the rights and improve working conditions and living standards for workers in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

The new web site stems from the Working Group’s first meeting, on July 8 and 9, 2002 in Mexico City, when it established technical expert subgroups to focus on four key areas of occupational safety and health:

  • Handling of hazardous substances;
  • Safety and health management systems and voluntary protection programs;
  • Training of technical assistance staff and inspectors; and
  • The development of a trinational web page for ongoing exchanges of information and good practices.

The launch of the web site means people in Canada, the United States and Mexico will have access to health and safety information links that promote public involvement and education. The information on the site will also facilitate the exchange of health and safety best practices.

“I believe that this Web site will serve as an excellent source of information about the Working Group as well as the various important occupational safety and health activities of the three governments,” said Canadian Labour Minister Claudette Bradshaw. “Collaborative projects such as this one encourage the ongoing exchange of information and the sharing of good practices that promote improved working conditions and living standards.”

The web site contains information on occupational health and safety programs from Canada, the United States and Mexico, as well as information on standards, workplace inspections, compliance, research, statistics and indicators, training, publications, and occupational health and safety legislation.

The Working Group is comprised of government occupational safety and health experts from the three countries. These experts discuss issues raised in public communications, make technical recommendations to the governments, develop and evaluate occupational safety and health projects, and identify other issues appropriate for collaboration.

The group meets on an ongoing basis, and most recently met in Toronto, April 26 and 27, in conjunction with the Industrial Accident Prevention Association’s annual Health and Safety Conference and Trade Show.

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Mould in the Workplace — a Basic Guide

There is no escaping mould. It is a natural part of our environment, and grows practically everywhere people live and work. And like everything else in our natural environment, mould can impact our health.

Mould is mostly harmless to human health when it is breaking down fallen trees and other organic material in the outdoors. But for some people, the inhalation of the mould, fragments of the moulds, or spores can lead to health problems or make certain health conditions worse.

Mould can appear on walls, floor coverings, windows, ventilation systems, and support beams that are likely to be moist or water damaged. It grows in warm and wet areas such as bathroom tubs, between tiles and window frames. The growth of any visible mould inside, on interior surfaces spells a risk factor for health problems and is unacceptable.

In some office buildings contaminated with mould, tenants reported symptoms such as fatigue, respiratory ailments and eye irritation. The health effects are often short-term, allergy-type symptoms (such as runny nose or cough). Some workers, however, have reported long-term effects, or even contracted lung disease or other life-threatening conditions that may be attributed to mould.

To help provide a clearer understanding of mould and when it might be hazardous, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) has published Mould in the Workplace — a Basic Guide. This latest title in a series of practical, safety “pocket guides” describes the different types of moulds and their possible health effects. It gives clear advice on what to do when mould is found, how to clean it up, and how to prevent its growth in the first place.

Besides explaining the basics of mould, the Guide will help the reader understand how air sampling works, and how to interpret the mould measurement data. In addition, it illustrates how to conduct an employee health survey in a workplace that may be contaminated with mould, and references all relevant health and safety standards and legislation.

The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.

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