The use of toxic asbestos has dropped significantly in recent decades, but the incidence of asbestos-related disease has remained frighteningly steady.

The continued threat of asbestos exposure remains real, making personal protective equipment (PPE) more important than ever to avoid becoming another victim of occupational illness or injury.

Q: What exactly is personal protective equipment (PPE)?

A: It is a general term for equipment that minimizes exposure to hazards that can cause illnesses and injuries in the workplace, such as asbestos fibers. PPE includes a variety of things, such as respirators, coveralls, shoes, safety glasses, gloves, vests, hard hats, and full-body suits.

Q: Why do I need PPE for asbestos when the mineral is hardly used anymore?

A: Asbestos exposure has changed in the last 25 years. It is no longer mined in the United States and Canada and very few new products are produced with asbestos today. The problem isn’t in factories anymore; the problem stems from older products that are still in use. Commercial and residential structures built before 1985 are filled with asbestos products. As asbestos ages, it becomes more brittle and dangerous and the fibers are more likely to become airborne. Anyone involved in renovations, remodels, or demolitions should be well aware of the danger. Shipyards are notorious havens for asbestos products (see this FAQ on Shipyards and Asbestos to learn more).

Q: How can the asbestos hurt me?

A: When the microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne, they can be unknowingly inhaled or ingested. These fibers can then lodge themselves in the thin membrane surrounding your lungs or abdomen. Once there, they will slowly cause scarring. Many years later, this can develop many years later into a cancer, such as mesothelioma, or a number of respiratory conditions.

Q: Is PPE required by law?

A: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide PPE if hazards or dangers are present at the work site (see Hazards vs Dangers to learn the difference between them). And asbestos certainly qualifies as a health hazard. The OSHA guidelines state that “Protective equipment, including…respiratory devices, and protective eye shields and barriers, shall be provided, used and maintained…for anything causing injury or impairment in the function of any part of the body through absorption, inhalation or physical contact."

So, to be brief, the answer is yes (see What PPE Does My Employer Need to Provide? to learn more about employees' PPE rights).

Q: Where do you most often see the PPE used because of asbestos?

A: Firemen must stay especially vigilant. Probably more than workers in any other occupation today, firefighters are regularly exposed to asbestos fibers when they answer a call in a structure built before 1985. Anything built before that year will be loaded with asbestos in the floors, walls, roof, and many of the plumbing and electrical parts. During a fire, the fibers become airborne and become part of the smoke. The fibers can engulf a firefighter.

The awareness of asbestos is what led to the development of the PPE and self-contained breathing apparatuses that modern firefighters use. Their PPE is designed to protect them from the toxic fibers (find out more about Firefighters and Asbestos).

Q: When working around asbestos, what equipment should I be wearing?

A: Depending upon the particular job, the PPE should include a respirator, possibly a Tyvek suit, gloves, boots, and shoe coverings. Not only can the fibers be inhaled, but they will stick to your hair, clothes, and shoes. If you aren’t covered up, you could risk exposing other family members when you come home from work.

Q: How do I know if PPE is used properly?

A: First of all, the equipment should be designed and maintained correctly. It should be comfortable and fit well or it won’t be used properly. Employers are required to train each worker on how to properly use the PPE (see our two articles on PPE for Women, Hand, Foot, and Body Safety and Head, Eye, and Ear Protection, to make sure you or your employees are properly outfitted).