Social research to improve asbestos management

The NSW EPA has conducted research in order to understand how to increase safe and legal behaviour towards asbestos. By understanding the behaviours towards asbestos management and disposal you can be better informed and make better decisions when designing your own strategies or programs.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring group of minerals which, were used extensively in building materials in Australia from the 1940s to 1980s. When in fibrous form, asbestos can be easily breathed in and become trapped in the lungs, increasing the risk of several types of cancer, including mesothelioma. Due to these health risks, asbestos building products were phased out during the 1980s and eventually banned in 2003. If your home was built before 1990, it's likely to contain asbestos. If the home was renovated between 1990 and 2004, it may contain asbestos.

Asbestos-containing materials remain an ongoing risk to the Australian community and environment as more than 4,000 people die each year from asbestos-related disease, and it is estimated that one in three houses in Australia contain asbestos.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is delivering programs on behalf of the NSW Asbestos Coordination Committee (NACC), as well as leading coordination across government, to collaborate and coordinate a whole of government approach to asbestos safety and management.

The aim of the NSW Asbestos Waste Strategy 2019–21 and NACC is to improve asbestos management and minimise the impacts of asbestos on the people and environment of NSW. This research was produced to support this.

The research focused on:

  • Home maintenance and renovation. Research was conducted to understand how to increase safe and legal behaviour in home maintenance and renovation situations up to the point of removal of asbestos waste
  • Waste. Research was conducted to provide guidance on how to increase lawful behaviour in relation to asbestos waste disposal and to set a baseline of key measures in relation to asbestos waste.

Household renovations and maintenance

The EPA commissioned the research to provide guidance on how to increase safe and lawful behaviour of asbestos handling and removal in home maintenance and renovation settings.

Who was involved?

Over 4,000 NSW community members were surveyed, and more than 100 people from relevant professional and non-professional audiences participated in group discussions and in-depth interviews.

Non-professional audiences included:

  • the NSW community
  • owner occupiers and other residents of properties built before 1990 (‘relevant properties’)
  • people who ever do unpaid renovation and maintenance work on the relevant properties of family and friends (‘unpaid handypeople’)
  • influencers - neighbours, family and close friends of those who had undertaken renovations and/or encountered asbestos on a relevant property
  • people affected by asbestos-related disease.

Professional audiences included in the research were:

  • licensed domestic building, maintenance, demolition and waste services professionals
  • paid handypeople working in roles where they were likely to encounter residential asbestos
  • asbestos specialists such as assessors, licensed removalists and occupational hygienists.

Key findings

  • As a general statement we know that people don’t know where asbestos might be, how to safely manage it and where to dispose of it legally.
  • Knowledge is the most significant barrier both amongst professionals and non-professionals and this can lead to unsafe behaviours.
  • Almost 50% of adults in NSW currently live in properties built before 1990, which could therefore contain asbestos. 
  • Most people in at risk properties are doing work themselves and involve family and friends.
  • There is widespread lack of consideration and planning for asbestos in maintenance and renovation.
  • Decision making is also hampered by overconfidence.
  • 23% of non-professionals take absolutely no safety precautions around asbestos even after they have discovered it.
  • Professionals prefer not to have to deal with asbestos, but they do not routinely involve the homeowner, and they feel pressure to work ‘through it’.

The EPA commissioned social research to provide guidance on how to increase safe and lawful behaviour in relation to asbestos disposal and to set a baseline of key measures in relation to asbestos waste.

The research found that a significant proportion of the NSW community is faced with having to make decisions about asbestos waste and its disposal. Regardless of the volume or type of asbestos waste, those making decisions about its disposal share similar needs and concerns about keeping themselves and others safe, ensuring their asset’s value is maintained or increased, minimising responsibility and liability and protecting reputations while also avoiding scrutiny and penalties for wrongful disposal.

Who was involved?

Over 2,000 NSW community residents were surveyed online and 32 people from relevant professional and non-professional audiences participated in group discussions and in-depth interviews.

Non-professional audiences included:

  • the NSW adult residents of properties built before 1990
  • 4 owners of properties containing asbestos materials requiring disposal (also called ‘site owners in previous’ research)

Professional audiences included in the research were:

  • property development, construction, landscaping and demolition workers
  • licensed asbestos removalists
  • professional transporters
  • waste facility operators
  • local government representatives
  • private certifiers.

Key findings

Generation of asbestos waste and preparation for disposal

  • In the last 2 years, 4% of the community has lived in or owned a property where asbestos waste was generated, and 15% of relevant workers have had asbestos-related activities occur in their workplace.
  • People do not consistently consider how asbestos waste will be disposed before works commence and this limits the extent to which it is factored into quotes, budgets and timelines.
  • As part of approvals processes for work on residential properties, asbestos does not always need to be identified and addressed, and requirements vary by development type and council area. Certifiers do not undergo asbestos-related training and their oversight is limited by development standards and conditions of consent.
  • Licensed asbestos removalists are the people most commonly involved in deciding how to dispose of asbestos waste and actually disposing of it, with tradespeople and building/demolition professionals the next most commonly involved.
  • Precautions taken when preparing waste for disposal were variable even where professionals were involved.

Disposal of asbestos waste

  • A quarter of community members surveyed reported improper methods of disposal when dealing with asbestos including commonly leaving it on-site once it had been removed (11%) or putting it in a kerbside municipal waste collection bin (7%).
  • The risk to those further down the waste chain are rarely considered (53% of all survey participants said they had never given thought to what happens to asbestos once it is disposed of).
  • Asbestos waste transportation is undertaken by many different parties from generators to removalists, as well as those who are professional transporters, including skip bin companies.
  • The use of the EPA's waste tracking system, WasteLocate, is reported as not widely and consistently used due to uncertainty over its requirements, technology and administrative issues.
  • Waste disposal facilities reported being impacted by the reliance on the customers (waste transporter) to declare the presence of asbestos in their waste, and implications and challenges of guaranteeing loads were free of asbestos fragments and problems associated with rejecting such loads from being disposed.
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