Do I need to use breathing apparatus when working with asbestos?

Worker in full face breathing apparatus

Working in an area of asbestos contamination can expose workers to significant health risks. Breathing apparatus is worn when working in places where the atmosphere is hazardous. Do you need to wear BA when working with asbestos?

Breathing apparatus is often considered when working in confined spaces. When working in a confined space, it is incredibly easy for the atmosphere to become harmful to health within a short period of time. This can be either through the absence of enough oxygen to support life, or the presence of dust, fumes, gases, mists, and vapours.

Disturbing asbestos fibres and their becoming airborne poses a significant risk to a worker’s health. Inhalation of asbestos fibres can lead to diseases including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other lung cancers. It is vital that workers protect themselves against the risks of exposure to asbestos fibres.

But is the use of breathing apparatus practicable as a way of minimising the risks of exposure to asbestos fibres?

What is breathing apparatus (BA)?

Breathing apparatus, or BA, can take on a few different forms depending on type of activity it is being used for.

The type of BA most people would be familiar with is what is called self-contained breathing apparatus. Specifically, the type used for underwater activities. It is where the “scuba” in scuba diving comes from (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).

The other type of breathing apparatus drops the “underwater” bit and is just referred to as self-contained breathing apparatus. Or even more simply, just BA. It functions in largely the same way but is used in situations where the operator is not underwater.

Both these types of BA consist of a tank, regulator (to manage the pressure of the gas coming out of the tank), and a mechanism for the operator to use for inhalation (either a mouthpiece or mask).

There are two types of breathing apparatus: open circuit and closed circuit.

Closed circuit BA filters, supplements and recirculates the exhaled breath from the operator. As its name suggests, it keeps the loop closed. There is no discharge into the atmosphere.

This type of BA is used in situations where an operator may need a supply of breathable air for longer durations. Mines rescue is a common one.

More commonly used is the open circuit type of breathing apparatus. In open circuit BA, the operator’s exhaled breaths are discharged outside of the system. This type of BA is what is commonly used in industrial applications.

Differences between BA and other PPE

The most common types of PPE worn when working with asbestos and other asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are those that form a barrier between the worker and airborne dust particles.

Items like plastic coveralls, gloves, eyeglasses, and face masks all work to prevent asbestos fibres entering the worker’s lungs.

In doing this, they still allow the worker to breathe the natural air in the environment they are working. The mask allows the air molecules to pass through but catches the larger asbestos and dust particulates and stops them from being inhaled.

Breathing apparatus, on the other hand, creates its own sealed breathable atmosphere. When used correctly, there is no way for the outside atmosphere to enter the BA system. It is separate.

What are the advantages of using BA when working with asbestos?

The big advantage of using breathing apparatus when working with asbestos is that the worker is breathing a wholly separate air supply, and not the natural atmosphere.

Using a full-face mask, rather than just a mouthpiece, also creates a sealed positive-pressure environment for the worker. That means, if even there were a small opening somewhere, the higher pressure inside the mask would force air out of the mask, rather than allow particles to enter.

What are the disadvantages of using BA when working with asbestos?

There are many disadvantages when using breathing apparatus during asbestos-related work.

The main one is that breathing apparatus is a complex kit of PPE and once it is used for working with asbestos it cannot be used for any other work. When not in use, it must be sealed and kept separate from all other tools and equipment.

This could also create problems when it comes time to refill thanks as well as servicing masks, regulators, and hoses.

Breathing apparatus is also heavier than simply wearing an appropriate mask and protective coveralls. This can result in work taking longer to complete than it may otherwise, and lengthening the amount of time a worker could be exposed to airborne asbestos fibres.

Using BA also requires additional training, beyond just that related to doing asbestos work.

Ultimately, a worker may still need to don protective coveralls, gloves and foot protection while completing the work. While inhalation of asbestos particles is where the danger is, care must also be taken not to spread asbestos fibres outside the work area. To this end, clothing and footwear must be covered with protective equipment.

The verdict on BA and asbestos

Unfortunately, as with many things related to safety, the final answer is “it is really up to the individual completing their own risk assessment and understanding the work they have to complete.”

Yes, you can absolutely use breathing apparatus when working with asbestos. But is it the most practicable way of protecting against the risk asbestos contamination poses?

Probably not. The more typical protective PPE is likely to offer a better balance between ease of use, protection against inhaling asbestos fibres and cost.

Understanding the risks of asbestos

Height Safety Engineers (RTO 91227) offers a range of training courses that provide workers with the skills they need to understand the risks to health asbestos poses, how to identify potential asbestos contamination, working safely with asbestos containing materials and removal of non-friable asbestos.

You can find out more by looking at our website, calling our team on 1300 884 978 or emailing

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