Why is it important to be aware of asbestos in the automotive industry?
Asbestos causes cancer, the most common being lung cancer and mesothelioma. Sometimes, even short exposures can cause disease.
If a vehicle or machinery was manufactured prior to 2003, it is likely to contain some form of asbestos material. Potential exposure to asbestos can occur when working with seals, gaskets or dust from friction parts. It’s important to make sure replacement parts are asbestos free – the packaging should indicate this.
Where is asbestos found in typical Australian vehicles?
The most common parts of vehicles still containing asbestos in Australia are:
- brake pads, linings and wheel rims
- clutch plates and housings
- seals and gaskets.
Historically, asbestos was also used in a number of other areas including:
- pipe wrap insulation (lagging)
- insulation to exhaust systems (flat and rope)
- plastic asbestos parts (seat bases, battery holders)
- underbody or soundproofing (under floor pan, rear parcel shelf, boot, under bonnet).
Since the 2003 ban, asbestos is most commonly found in old vehicles and imported cars from countries where asbestos is not banned, predominantly China.
What are some of the common activities I need to take care with?
Removing and replacing gaskets and clutch and brake linings are the biggest hazards for mechanics, as is sanding or cleaning out asbestos-containing dust.
Asbestos can be friable or non–friable. Friable means you can break it up just using your fingers. For example, new asbestos brake pads may be non–friable but when removing them after wear they and the associated dust can be friable.
Keep a cartridge half face mask (P2) and some additional paper (P2) disposable masks on hand in your toolbox as backups which you can dispose of appropriately later. Ideally, you should be clean shaven to ensure the mask fits properly and do not leak.
Keep some important equipment like a water spray bottle (with PVA glue mixture), disposable overalls, gloves, a 200-micron thick plastic bag and duct tape to seal the waste material. That way you are not leaving the asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) lying around to cause the next person to be exposed to dangerous asbestos fibres.
If you work at a premises or a mobile workshop, consider setting up a container such as an empty drum with a lid or other suitable container lined with plastic (200um available from industrial suppliers) so that all brake shoes, linings, clutch plates, gaskets and seals can be disposed of as potential ACMs.
Try not to give in to the ‘she’ll be right this time’ mindset to get a job done faster. Even though the asbestos fibres that can harm you are invisible to the human eye, they are there and you can easily take them home with you to your family. If you have to handle or work with ACMs, it is important to remember:
- DO NOT use power tools
- DO NOT use abrasive cutting or sanding discs
- DO NOT use compressed air high-pressure water hose or brooms to sweep the waste up
- DO NOT walk on corrugated asbestos-cement roofs as you may run the risk of falling through
- DO NOT leave ACMs where they may be broken or crushed allowing fibres to escape into the air or into the environment
- DO NOT cover it over as this only hides it which could result in someone accidently cutting into it.
As recently as March 2021, the Australian Border Force (ABF) examined two gaskets in a consignment of aftermarket parts and components imported from China destined for use in construction plant. The two gaskets were compatible with models of Komatsu and Shantui bulldozers. The gaskets were sampled and tested and found to contain chrysotile asbestos.
While asbestos has been prohibited in Australia since December 2003, in some countries it is still used in manufactured products. Certification of asbestos-free goods from some overseas manufacturers have been found not to meet Australian requirements. The importation, manufacture, supply, sale and use or reuse of asbestos and asbestos-containing products is not permitted, except under very limited circumstances. Some supplier countries may classify goods with low levels of asbestos as ‘asbestos-free’. In Australia, any level of asbestos is prohibited for import or use.
If you need assistance with the WHS implications of any ACMs, contact the WR team on