Asbestos and the Auto Industry
For many decades, asbestos has been used by the auto industry in brake pads and linings, clutch facings, and gaskets. Millions of these products remain on vehicles currently in use, which poses an asbestos exposure risk to auto mechanics across the nation. Though it may be a shocking fact to many people, some brakes and clutches in production today are still made with asbestos, just in smaller quantities than older brakes.
In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a brochure entitled “Current Best Practices for Preventing Asbestos Exposure Among Brake and Clutch Repair Workers,” which offers safety recommendations to those working with brakes and clutches. This brochure warns, “Because some, but not all, automotive brakes and clutches available or in use today may contain asbestos, professional automotive technicians and home mechanics who repair and replace brakes and clutches may be exposed to asbestos dust.” The document also explains it is impossible to know if brake or clutch components contain asbestos just by looking at them, and reports the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) advises “mechanics should assume that all brakes have asbestos-type shoes.”
Hazard to Auto Mechanics
When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or damaged, they release microscopic asbestos fibers into the air. Of course, the nature of brake and clutch functions causes continual abrasion, and this releases the imbedded asbestos fibers. Much of the toxic material is trapped inside the clutch space or brake housing, and this is released with repair and replacement work is performed. The vacuums used to clean the work area during and after the job can further spread asbestos fibers into the surrounding air.
The dangerous asbestos fibers are easily inhaled and can even be ingested if fibers get on their hands and clothes (poses a problem when eating). The fibers tend to linger in the air long after a job is done, potentially exposing other mechanics and even customers who enter the shop. Asbestos can even be carried home on workers’ clothing, exposing their families to the hazardous material. This should be a serious concern, as exposure to asbestos can lead to a variety of deadly diseases, such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma cancer.
Additionally, nonprofessional home auto mechanics that repair or replace their own brakes or clutches can also be exposed to asbestos, as well as their families since no protective measures are likely taken to prevent fibers from entering the home. Exposure at home can even be worse, as these auto enthusiasts most often do not have the tools and equipment to make the job quicker and easier (which leads to actions that further disturb asbestos, such as aggressive strikes with a hammer to release the older product).
In 2000, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer funded a study performed by government-certified laboratories that discovered high levels of asbestos in 21 of the 31 brake-repair shops studied, which spanned six states throughout the country. The same study also found that most of the workers were under the impression that asbestos was banned by the EPA a long time ago. If this study reflects the conditions at auto mechanic shops across the nation, then thousands upon thousands of mechanics could be at risk of serious asbestos exposure.
The EPA’s brochure offers information regarding OSHA’s regulations for commercial automotive shops concerning asbestos. The recommendations are separated into commercial automotive shops that perform more than five brake or clutch jobs per week, and those that perform less than five.
OSHA regulations require shops performing more than five brake or clutch jobs a week to use one of the following practices:
· Negative-Pressure Enclosure/HEPA Vacuum System Method: This kind of enclosure and vacuum system features a special box with clear plastic walls (or windows), which fits tightly around a brake or clutch assembly in order to prevent asbestos exposure.
· Low Pressure/Wet Cleaning Method: This specially designed low-pressure spray equipment wets the brake assembly and catches the asbestos-contaminated runoff in a special basin to reduce or prevent airborne brake dust from spreading.
For shops performing less than five brake or clutch jobs a week, the following method should be used:
· Wet Wipe Method: This method uses a spray bottle (or other device that can deliver a fine mist of water), or amended water (water with a detergent), at low pressure to wet all brake and clutch parts. These parts can then be wiped with a cloth.
For those who repair or replace their own brakes or clutches at home and have no way of knowing if the materials contain asbestos (as is the case in most instances), the EPA recommends having the job done at a commercial shop to avoid exposure. If this is not an option, the agency then recommends using the preventative measures required of commercial shops performing more than five brake or clutch jobs a week. If an individual lacks the professional equipment required, then the wet wipe method is recommended.
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