Interview: Baby Bust
Safety: Dust To Dust
Bad Boss: Shaming in Print
National Focus: Work's Cripplin' Us
International: Bulk Bullies
History: The Battle for Kelly's Bush
Economics: Aid, Trade And Oil
Review: The Art Of Work
Poetry: Sew His Lips Together
Saving The Planet
Dust To Dust
Last month members of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) called for the re-establishment NSW WorkCover's specialist Asbestos Demolition Units.
"These units should never have been closed down," says CFMEU State secretary Andrew Ferguson. "These units had specialist inspectors. They were experts. Since the closure of the units safety has deteriorated."
This was shown at the beginning of the month at St Peters in Sydney with a developer conducting unlicensed demolition next door to a public school. Concerned parents contacted the CFMEU after material from the demolition spilt into the street.
The site, which was unsecured - allowing children to 'play' in the site after hours, contained asbestos components.
A WorkCover inspector who attended the site was also allegedly threatened by the developer.
"The CFMEU has been very militant in its view of protection of the public," says CFMEU organiser Marty Wyer.
Wyer pointed to the problem of demolition cowboys who illegally dump asbestos into landfill as a cost cutting measure. This was recently highlighted with asbestos being found on a popular beach in northern Sydney.
"There are cowboys in the industry," says Wyer. "You only have to pick up a copy of your local rag and see the demolition companies that advertise in the classifieds. They may be able to quote a demolition license, but this doesn't mean they can remove asbestos."
Wyer spoke of demolition contractors who would remove asbestos on weekends to avoid scrutiny, crushing the asbestos up and rendering it more dangerous. According to Wyer educating people about the deathly dangers of asbestos was also a problem.
"My job is to empower safety representatives. It's easy to explain safety if it's a harness to stop someone falling off a roof," says Wyer. "But because it can take twenty years to take effect we tend to think we're bulletproof, but death from asbestos is a very horrible death."
The move by the industry to clean up the 'Cowboys' operating in it follows complaints by residents in Randwick and Centennial Park about the practices of asbestos removalists.
At the Centennial Park site, next to Fox Studios, residents were concerned about dust blowing across the street from an asbestos removal job into their homes.
"We were given no warning," says local resident Josephine Wadlow-Evans. "Residents were absolutely horrified."
Wadlow-Evans and other residents allege that workers on the site were initially working without any masks, asbestos sheeting was being dropped and broken and dust was blowing across the street into residents homes, driven by "gale force winds".
Residents immediately contacted WorkCover but, despite their concerns, a WorkCover complaint register from the time notes that the incident "Does not warrant investigation as the Company is licensed to conduct this work and has in the past demonstrated competency in same."
Bill Snell from Alkene, the asbestos removal contractors for the Fox Studios job, categorically denies that residents were under any risk, with asbestos monitoring equipment on the site registering a zero reading.
"Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance," said Snell. "I'd be surprised if anything blew off that building."
Snell also claimed that workers wore personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times.
Snell did agree that 'cowboys' posed a problem to the industry.
"There's a lot of shonky operators out there," says Snell. "A lot of asbestos claims will come from demolishers who aren't doing the right thing."
The union's call for safety to be improved has received the backing of bosses in the industry.
"Unfortunately in recent years there has been a sharp deterioration in safety standards which threaten worker and public safety," says Bob Brady, president of the Demolition Contractors Association. "Legitimate businesses that comply with workers compensation and safety legislation are being undercut by shonky contractors."
"We need WorkCover to have a specialist unit that enforces the rule of law and safeguards workplace safety."
From January the 1st this year the last loopholes allowing the use of asbestos have been eliminated, but that doesn't address the problem of the asbestos that currently exists in buildings across the country.
The deadly fibre was a popular building material for decades; as a result it is found in buildings ranging from the Opera House right across to local primary schools.
Forty-five thousand people are expected to die from asbestos related illness over the next 20 years unless effective medical treatments are found.
The extent of the problem can be measured through the existing 8000 mesothelioma sufferers, 25,000 lung cancer patients with asbestos exposure and 33,000 asbestosis sufferers in Australia.
Peggy Trompf from the Workers Health Centre in Lidcombe stresses the importance of dealing correctly with asbestos.
"In a domestic situation asbestos is commonly found as fibro asbestos-cement sheeting [also known as AC Sheeting] in homes built pre-1970s, also as asbestos lagging or roof insulation," says Trompf. "If there's more than 200 square metres of AC Sheeting, or any amount of lagging or insulation, it must be removed by a licensed contractor."
"In a commercial setting a thorough audit should be done to determine levels of asbestos and an asbestos register established before any work commences on any strip-out or demolition."
WorkCover NSW can be contacted for a list of licensed asbestos removal contractors.
Trompf says that people who suspect that they may have asbestos in their home or workplace can contact the Workers Health Centre and arrange to have materials tested. The Workers Health Centre website also has a fact sheet on asbestos.
Members of the public can contact the CFMEU or the NSW WorkCover Demolition and Asbestos Hotline on 9370 5885, 9370 5881 or 9370 9220 to report any suspicious behaviour on demolition sites.
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