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Demolition and hazardous materials: what you need to know

Posted on June 5th, 2018 in Uncategorized

Demolition is already the most dangerous area of construction, but the safety risks are even higher when hazardous materials are involved.

In most cases, these materials are benign unless disturbed. Disturbance can have serious consequences for workers and other people in the vicinity.

If you’re demolishing a building or other structure where asbestos, lead other dangerous agents may be present, it’s essential that you remove and dispose of these safely by following the established guidelines.

Mandatory risk assessment

If you’re working on a site that contains asbestos or other hazardous materials, a risk assessment must be carried out to identify all areas where the material may be present (AS 2601). This is necessary even if a similar survey has been completed recently, and may involve partial demolition to inspect a sample of the structure for hidden materials.

Once the areas of risk have been identified, you should create a demolition plan that clearly sets out the roles and responsibilities of team members to remove and dispose of these materials safely and in accordance with guidelines.

Insulation materials

Older buildings and infrastructure, especially those built between 1930 and 1983, may contain hazardous materials that were used for insulation before their health consequences were properly understood. These can include:

  • Asbestos – used to insulate boilers and pipes and also present in some ceiling tiles, doors, facades and roofs before it was banned. Asbestos should be assumed to be present in older buildings until proven otherwise.
  • Lead – found in flashing, paint, pipes and plumbing, lead becomes hazardous during demolition when it’s reduced to chips, dust and fumes.
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – present in electrical capacitors and transformers and sometimes in paint and sealants. PCBs are insulating fluids that can lead to birth defects and thyroid issues.
  • Synthetic mineral fibres (SMF) – used as the “safe” replacement for asbestos in more modern buildings, these fibres can still cause lung problems and other irritations.


Stored chemicals and chemical waste may be present on industrial sites. These need to be safely disposed of before demolition or earthmoving can proceed. Dangerous chemicals can include:

  • acids
  • cleaning products
  • fertilisers
  • fuels
  • lubricants
  • oils

Empty drums, pipes and tanks that formerly contained chemicals also need to be carefully removed, as there may be a risk of contamination, fire or explosion.

Air conditioning units, fire extinguishers and refrigerators may also contain ozone-depleting substances and should be handled with care.

Biological agents

Structures that have been poorly maintained may harbour biological materials such as mould or animal waste that can be dangerous when inhaled.

As when removing other harmful substances, workers should wear protective clothing and use respiration equipment if biological agents are present in large quantities.

Demolition byproducts

Demolition and earthmoving activities themselves can create new hazards for workers and other people in the area that need to be carefully managed. The most common are:

  • Dust – suppressed by water spraying, wet mopping or industrial vacuuming.
  • Emissions – fumes from engine exhausts and gas cutting require extraction and ventilation.
  • Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) – can be released by hand tools, which should be fitted with exhaust systems to prevent inhalation.
  • Sparks – fire is a risk when any equipment produces heat, flame or sparks. Make sure you have a fire plan in place that’s continually updated.

Keep on top of industry developments

Find out what challenges are facing civil construction, demolition and earthmoving in Australia by attending the first National Construction Equipment Convention (NCEC).

This industry-owned, multi-disciplinary platform takes place from 15-17 November 2018 at Sydney Showground, Sydney Olympic Park.

Get all the event details here


SafeWork NSW. Code of Practice Demolition Work.