Whether it’s durable PU cement, classic hardwood, or beautiful terrazzo, flooring choices can make or break a room. One thing that may be overlooked, however, is the safety of what may be under your feet. No, this is not referring to slip-resistance or avoiding bacteria-harboring grout (although those are important considerations too). The concern is contractor safety during the installation process. While flooring professionals are experts in their craft, they need to be experts in their health as well.
One area of safety concern is pre-existing asbestos in older homes and buildings. The peak of asbestos use in flooring occurred from the late 1940s through the end of the 1970s. Admired for its affordability, insulating qualities, flexibility and resistance to heat and fire, asbestos was heavily used in a variety of construction products. This was especially true in the flooring industry. Tile adhesive, tile flooring, vinyl flooring, and flooring felt were all known to include large amounts of asbestos with well-known companies like Armstrong World Industries, Congoleum Corporation, Kentile Floors and others manufacturing and marketing these flooring products.
While asbestos use continued to grow, researchers realized many of those exposed to the mineral would later succumb to severe health issues, especially involving the respiratory tract. The hazardous nature of the material was eventually inspected and countries around the world began to regulate its import, export, use and disposal. Today, over 60 countries have banned asbestos, including the United Kingdom which implemented a ban in 1999. Most recently, Brazil, one of the largest importers and exporters of the mineral, implemented a national ban on the toxin in 2017. Still, major world powers are split on the legality of the toxin, with about 70% of the world still allowing its use. While progressive regulations have been made, asbestos is still a significant global problem. It is estimated that Russia exports over 1 million metric tons of asbestos every year, and even an industrialized nation like the United States has rather limited regulations and still imports about 340 metric tons annually.
Although asbestos has been banned in the UK for nearly two decades, that does not mean the population is now free from health risks. While asbestos is not considered hazardous as long as it is in good condition, any disturbance or damage could potentially release the dangerous asbestos fibers into the air. Yes, those disturbances include actions like construction and more specifically, flooring renovation. Contractors and flooring installation professionals should be aware of how the mineral might affect their health, as well as when asbestos is present and how to safely work around it.
Asbestos is one of the leading causes of occupational cancer. According to the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), asbestos-related diseases account for at least 100,000 deaths worldwide each year. Contact with asbestos fibers can cause many serious health conditions, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Workers who also smoke have an elevated risk of diagnosis for any of these conditions. Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that can cause mild to severe symptoms, but is not always deadly. Asbestos-caused lung cancer occurs when the irritation from the asbestos fibers forms a tumor in the lungs. Mesothelioma is the rarest, yet most aggressive of the three, with an average life expectancy of just 12 to 21 months. With this diagnosis, the cancer cells develop in the linings of the lungs, abdomen or heart.
The challenging part is asbestos is nearly impossible to detect with certainty without performing a lab test. But there are some tips you can keep in mind to maintain safety while removing old flooring that could potentially contain asbestos.
- Your mantra should always be, “if you think it could be asbestos, treat it as asbestos.” Even if the material has not been tested, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Inform yourself on the residence. When was it built? Can you find out who manufactured the previous flooring? If it was installed prior to 1980 or came from a company known to use asbestos, be cautious and have it tested before proceeding. Have a professional abate any materials that test positive for asbestos.
- Consider the condition. If the existing flooring is in good condition, can it simply be covered without being removed? If it is chipped or damaged in any way, it’s essential to have the flooring tested.
- Follow HSE regulations regarding safety standards and controlling exposure.
- Know the signs and symptoms. Although it typically takes between 20-50 years for symptoms of asbestos-related-diseases to manifest, it is important to know ahead of time what to be mindful of, especially since these symptoms are often first mistaken for other respiratory illnesses. Know you are in a high-risk occupation and advocate for yourself with your doctor if you begin to experience symptoms in the future.
Installing flooring is a rewarding job and an integral part of the interior design process. Your work acts as a base that informs all other structural and design decisions, and once completed, elevates the space. Be proud, but also be safe.