Asbestos abatement taxing for workers
Contracts to remove asbestos from Truckee Meadows schools are keeping specialists in the challenging, highly regulated field moving this summer.
Asbestos abatement workers are among the cleanest construction workers you’ll ever find. Workers who specialize in asbestos removal must shower every time they doff their protective full-body suits even when they break for lunch.
Rigorous training requirements aside, it takes a special kind of worker to handle the confining full-body suits, filtration masks and cramped workspaces, and working in asbestos abatement isn’t for everyone, says Cory Bustrum, estimator and asbestos superintendent for Diversified Concrete Cutting’s asbestos abatement division.
“Wearing a mask seven hours or better a day, it is like having an octopus hooked to your face,” Bustrum says. “Not a lot of guys can do the work.”
Diversified employs about 20 tradesmen certified in asbestos abatement.
Abatement workers must wear a full-body suit made from Tyvek insulating housewrap, a HEPA filtration mask, and rubber boots and gloves. One of three workers wears an air pump so that supervisors can determine what level of respiration mask is required, as well as to ensure that containment and control levels all are uniform and correct.
Additionally, job sites require portable showers, negative air machines, and negative air pressure enclosures built with polyethylene plastic and duct tape so that none of the dangerous fibers can escape the containment area.
“The majority of the equipment we use is a spin-off from the old days of NASA,” Bustrum says. “It is a lot of gear we put on them, and we basically build a ‘boy-in-a-bubble’ syndrome.”
Diversified Concrete Cutting won several recent contracts with the Washoe County School District for asbestos abatement, such as a project to remove asbestos from insulated pipes at Mount Rose and Anderson elementary schools.
Advance Installations of Sparks, meanwhile, won three asbestos abatement jobs through the Washoe County School District. Advanced is removing asbestos-laden drywall, flooring and wall paneling at Elmcrest and Lemon Valley elementary schools, and asbestos flooring at Wooster High School.
Vice President Tom Davis says despite the rigors of the work, many of the employees at Advance Installations have been with him for more than 20 years.
“Generally every year I’ve got the same faces working for me,” Davis says.
One of the hurdles to getting a pool of qualified abatement workers, says Tony Mayorga, training instructor and president of Laborers Local 169, is finding people who can withstand the uncomfortable temperatures generated through breathing through a mask and wearing a sealed full-body suit.
“Some people just cannot stand the heat,” Mayorga says. “When you are in there you are in an enclosed area; it gets hot. During training we tell them it’s hard work, but the main thing is the heat. You have to get used to the environment, just like any other job.”
Davis of Advance Installations says that due to the heat oftentimes he’ll run crews at night to help workers keep cool.
Mayorga says the 40-hour training involves about 14 hours of hands-on training. The rest is classroom instruction on environmental regulations, health effects of asbestos, and how to protect oneself from its harmful effects.
“It is a very intense class, and it is a lot of stuff to learn,” Mayorga says.
Union laborers who work in asbestos abatement must complete the 40-hour instructional course at Laborers Union 169’s training facility on Reactor Way, and then pay for licensure through the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Licensed asbestos removal workers must complete an annual eight-hour refresher course at Local 169, as well as re-apply annually for their OSHA abatement license.
Many people who complete the training just don’t pan out in the field, Diversified’s Bustrum says.
“They get claustrophobic from wearing the mask,” he says. “A lot of people make it through the (training) class and don’t even make it through their first shift. Some don’t even make it for lunch time.”
Training at Local 169 depends on demand. So far this year Local 169 has trained about 25 people and conducted numerous refresher courses so that workers can keep their abatement certifications current.
“If they don’t take the refresher, they won’t be working,” Mayorga says.
Employees at Advance Installations are responsible for initial asbestos training and yearly refresher courses. Advance sends its employees to WISE Consulting and Training of Reno.
President Tom Wise, who founded the training company in 1990, says asbestos training has been consistent the past few years, but he’s seen a big increase in demand for his 16-hour asbestos operation and maintenance course, which allows contractors to undertake small-scale asbestos jobs.
Asbestos abatement work accounts for about 80 percent of the workload for Advance Installations this summer.
Wages for abatement work typically run lower than for skilled journeyman tradesmen, but because all work on school jobs is government-funded, employees are all making prevailing wage, Davis says.
Asbestos is relatively harmless until disturbed. Tiny asbestos fibers can penetrate deep into the lungs and lead to mesothelioma, which often doesn’t show up for 15 to 40 years.
Asbestos must be double bagged or placed in a steel drum before it goes to a landfill. Locally, Lockwood Regional Landfill accepts asbestos at a special pit where it gets buried daily, Bustrum says. Each load requires its own manifest.
“There is a mountain of paperwork even once you have the job,” he says.
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