Asbestos still risk to workers 20 years on from ban

Two decades since a nationwide ban on the use, importation and manufacture of asbestos, it continues to lurk in buildings built before 1990 and can be present in many different forms which can become disturbed on demolition and construction sites.

Coinciding with National Asbestos Awareness Week (20-27 November), WorkSafe inspectors will be visiting sites across the state to ensure asbestos-containing materials are being managed and removed safely.

The inspections across regional and metropolitan Victoria over the next fortnight will focus on issues such as ensuring asbestos is identified prior to demolition, checking that there are processes for workers to know where asbestos is likely to be found and what to do if it is, and ensuring when required that any required asbestos removal is being undertaken by a licenced removalist.

A poster checklist has also been developed to help employers meet their obligations when undertaking asbestos removal work.

Exposure to asbestos fibres can cause deadly diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. Scientific studies show that asbestos can also cause cancer of the larynx and ovaries and is associated with pharynx, stomach and colorectal cancers.

Former fitter and machinist Brian Healy believes he was just an apprentice when he was exposed to asbestos while removing cladding.

“The boss would say to you ‘don’t worry about it, just do the job, get on with it’. Being young, you did what the boss told you to do and you just did your job,” Mr Healy said.

Mr Healy urges workers to speak up if they feel their workplace is not taking the risk of asbestos exposure seriously.

“The only one who’s going to suffer later on down the track will be you if you don’t look after yourself.”

Data from the Australian Mesothelioma Register shows since 2003 an average of 716 people have been diagnosed with mesothelioma each year nationwide. Sadly, the disease claims an average of more than 600 lives each year.

WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety Narelle Beer said despite the progress made in the last 20 years, asbestos continued to pose a very real risk in many workplaces.

“This is an opportune time for employers to take stock and ensure they have systems in place to identify, manage and, where required, arrange the safe removal of asbestos,” Dr Beer said.

“Understanding the dangers of asbestos and meeting your obligations to reduce the risks can be the difference between you or a worker living a long and healthy life, or developing a serious illness.”

Despite the well-known risks, WorkSafe continues to catch out employers doing the wrong thing. So far in 2023, WorkSafe has completed six successful asbestos-related prosecutions with fines and costs totalling almost $100,000.

Employers are legally required to identify any asbestos-containing material in a workplace, label it and record it in an asbestos register. Asbestos removal licence holders are required to notify WorkSafe prior to any removal works, display appropriate signage, and ensure workers are wearing personal protective equipment during its removal.

Employers must also arrange medical examinations for all removalists or other workers engaged in asbestos-related activities where there is a risk to exposure to airborne asbestos fibres in excess of half the exposure standard.

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