Eighteen years ago I was involved in a review of asbestos materials in Victoria, and we found plenty. I argued then that it should be removed or a new generation of workers will pay the price. Here I am now and that generation of workers is about to commence work at workplaces riddled with poor quality asbestos containing materials (ACMs).

Last week, the Australian Defence Force was slammed for the revelation that nearly 250,000 suspected asbestos parts were still in naval stores, despite their being outlawed since 2004. But the Federal Government ruled out an immediate ban on asbestos in the ADF, just promising to “accelerate” its removal programs.

This is just another chapter in the story of asbestos and another example of why the risk management approach doesn’t work. The Australian Workers’ Union is not foolish enough to think that a prioritised removal program can be done quickly, it may take 20-30 years. But why can’t this generation start the program?

The International Labour Organization writes that about every five minutes, someone around the world dies of an asbestos-related disease. What else do you need to know before you move to completely remove this menace from possible exposure in schools, in public buildings, to DIY builders, to the wives of workers who bring it home, to hundreds of thousands of workers across Australia who are exposed daily to deteriorating ACMs?

There are many villains in the sad and continuing story of the use and presence of ACMs. Many of them exist in the corridors of power and bureaucracy, hiding behind convenient uncertainty or going so far as to manufacture or nurture such uncertainty.

It’s accepted by scientists around the world that there is no known safe level for asbestos fibres — in fact, not for any carcinogen. Whilst to talk of the single asbestos fibre that you might be breathing now is unrealistic — since usually millions are breathed at a time — some asbestos fibres kill and no one can ever tell you which specific fibre is the innocent one that will not kill you. The essence of the OHS precautionary philosophy should be that no single asbestos fibre is regarded as innocent.

By strongly supporting the risk assessment, risk management approach, regulatory bodies around the country, all their Heads and their inspectors — and certainly all politicians who generally wouldn’t know any better (perhaps with the exception of Bob Carr) — are running on the philosophy that breathing a little bit is okay.

That approach requires that any OHS hazard is assessed for risk level (probability of harm) and then managed accordingly. In other words, not removed in some intelligent and safe manner, but kept in place and ‘exported’ to the next generation of workers to deal with. This is exporting a time bomb; someone will be killed in due course.

The risk management approach doesn’t work, required Asbestos Registers at work (recording where the ACM is) generally don’t exist, regulators are weak on any inspections and knowledge by managers and politicians is poor. Huge amounts of damaged ACMs are present throughout industry, slowly “poisoning” people.

It’s for these reasons that when the Australian Workers’ Union discovered huge amounts of ACMs at the Cement Australia factory in Railton Tasmania, they immediately banned certain areas and demanded a total removal — not a “risk management” approach. To the union’s surprise, the company agreed and immediately demolished the particularly offending structures the AWU had banned, and then proceeded into a total removal program along the lines of the AWU created campaign, Prioritised Removal. This is with an eye to total removal, not total ‘management’ for years on end.

Bureaucrats are very uneasy about this program and after the AWU introduced them to the notion of Prioritised Removal in contrast to risk management, they asked for the rationale for such a program. They have now asked a number of the company executives to explain why they accepted such a program, and they have asked AWU officials to justify such a removal program.

There are many terribly asbestos-sick people in Australia gasping for a breath of air. If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters. That’s how we justify it.

Peter Fray

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