Asbestos contaminated air filters – are hire companies managing the risks?
All engines have air filters. Round air filters are more common in industrial equipment. Most cars these days however, have a flat, square type of air filter. These filters are mostly housed in a container with an air inlet hole and an outlet hole. The filter captures particles as the air travels through the container. An example below is for a round filter container. Tim Nuttall, Access Hire. At a recent Board meeting there was some discussion around air filters; specifically, the routines for returning machines that have been used in asbestos environments.
While typically, air filters are signed off by an asbestos consultant – with a certificate – before being returned to the hire yard, it has come to the Board’s attention these consultants aren’t always aware of the hazards posed by the engine’s air filter after being used on an asbestos contaminated site. This oversight poses a significant health risk to technicians – both on site and in the hire company years after the equipment has been returned. Here Tim Nuttall, Managing Director at Access Hire in Victoria, Peter Davis, Executive General Manager Fleet and Logistics at Coates Hire and John Glover, National Service Manager, for Onsite Rental Group talk us through the situation and clarifies the standard procedure all hire companies hiring to asbestos removal contractors need to be doing.
“When we hire equipment to Licenced Asbestos Contractors there is a legal requirement for the equipment to be cleaned while still located inside the contamination zone,” Tim said.
“The work areas on contaminated sites are sealed so people can’t just work into the isolation zone without the appropriate protective clothing and need to be decontaminated before they allow any demolishing or development of the site. This is a strictly controlled process,” Peter said.
“The contractor cleans the equipment with high pressure cleaners and waits for a third party inspection from an Authorised Asbestos company who specialises in identifying contamination. Once the machine has been cleaned to the satisfaction of the third party inspectors it is released back to the hire company with a ‘Certificate of Clearance’ that gets emailed to the hire company,” Tim said.
“All of the above is a highly controlled process that needs to be done in accordance with legislation,” Peter said.
“The issue that has come up for discussion is about the checking of air filters on equipment with combustion engines. All combustion engines have air filters to remove dust and other contaminates from the air flowing into the motor to prevent particles damaging the internal parts of the engine. Obviously on a contaminated asbestos site this would include asbestos fibres,” Peter said.
“As part of our due diligence for providing a safe workplace (at Access Hire) it came to our attention the site cleaning and checking did not include the air filter on these machines. The contractor wasn’t cleaning or replacing them and the third party inspectors were not checking them. We had identified an oversight,” Tim said.
“The problem arises when a service technician services a machine that has been on a contaminated site. The servicing often involves removing the filter from its housing and checking if it is dirty and needing replacement,” Tim said
“Note: while the filter is in the machine, it is in a contained environment and it doesn’t pose a threat; however, when it is removed it creates the highest level of risk because the asbestos fibres in the filters are very fine and can fall out of the filter. These fibres can then be easily breathed in,” Peter said.
“Some hire companies supply a new filter every time the internal combustion machines goes to site and the contractor should then swap out the filter on the machine before it leaves the contamination zone and the third party inspectors then check to ensure this had happened,” Peter said.
However it became apparent this wasn’t a standard routine and without it, the hazards remain; and the highest risk asbestos particulates are found in the filter. This is exacerbated by the fact qualified asbestos certifiers aren’t noticing air filters as a risk if they’re presented with a clean machine to sign off.
“Should a machine return to our yard where it is not apparent the filter has been changed, our service technicians fit appropriate protective equipment and clothing before they remove the filters. They isolate the filters into sealed containers and dispose of them correctly. They fit a new filter to the machine,” Tim said.
“This oversight has been brought to the contractors and third party inspectors’ attention.
“The number of authorised Asbestos removal companies is quite small. Not every hire company will be hiring to them. There is a risk that equipment may go to a company that is removing asbestos and in a less controlled manner than the major approved companies,” Tim said.
“There is a minimum amount of asbestos anyone can remove without having exclusion zones so equipment on these sites could have some exposure from time to time without the rental company’s knowledge. There are strict controls everyone who touches asbestos needs to observe, particularly in the manner in which it is removed and disposed of,” Peter said.
“As with the silicon dust issue (story in the February issue of Hire + Rental Magazine), asbestos is a contaminant that needs to be handled and managed effectively. It is difficult to say if hire companies are aware and/or have procedures to observe and manage the risk but now we have identified the best way to manage the risk and reduce the hazard.”
John Glover, National Service Manager, for Onsite Rental Group, said: “The blowing out of air filters is not recommended under any circumstances. If an air filter is dirty/dusty it should be replaced. OEM and filtration experts I engage with always advise more damage is done to the filter by blowing out.
“Also the fine dust particles caused by blowing out an air filter cannot be good for anyone’s health,” John said.