Calling the modification of electrical meter boxes a “game changer”, an official from Australia’s largest electricians union says workers should refuse to do it until the dangerous boxes have been inspected. Allen Hicks, Assistant National Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, told the Sydney Morning Herald that asbestos-containing meter boxes are being modified more frequently because of renovations and that too many workers are not adequately protected against mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases.
The warning, which centers on the meter boxes in homes built before 1983, was issued after a New South Wales electrical company instructed its workers to wear masks around the boxes to minimize asbestos and mesothelioma risk. When the Electrical Trades Union learned of the warning, they advised workers not to work on the boxes at all until a statewide audit of dangerous boxes had been conducted.
“If there’s any risk at all of exposure to asbestos then we would certainly recommend our members not work on those boards until such time as it has been remedied,” Hicks told Australia’s ABC News. Another trade union, the United Services Union, called the power company’s recommendation to wear masks “dangerous and inadequate”.
At issue is the heat and fire-resistant mineral asbestos, which was used to make meter boxes in Australia for decades. Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a virulent cancer of the membranes that line the chest and abdomen. When asbestos is disturbed by cutting or drilling, as is likely when a meter box is modified during a renovation project, asbestos fibers can be inhaled or ingested, causing a mesothelioma risk for anyone nearby. Although it can take decades to develop, once symptoms begin, mesothelioma is one of the most difficult cancers to treat successfully.
American electricians and tradespeople face a similar mesothelioma risk when they are involved in renovating or rewiring older homes and buildings. While asbestos is not common in American electric meters, it was a common building material until the 1970’s and can still be found in everything from old floor tiles, to paint, to shingles. The process of wiring or rewiring buildings may require electricians to crawl through, reach into, or otherwise disturb areas where asbestos is present. In order to protect people from mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has strict regulations for those who work around asbestos, including safety training, protective gear and respirators.
Vincent, Michael, “Fears electricians at risk of asbestos exposure”, October 29, 2012, Australia’s ABC News online.