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Issue #1743      August 10, 2016

Asbestos

Deadly dust: union response

We’ve heard about the discovery of asbestos at the Perth Children’s Hospital and even further delays on the opening date of PCH as a result. The CFMEU was the first to discover and test for the presence of asbestos products on site.

When some ask “What is the purpose of a union in this day and age?” it’s this: This is the purpose. A union’s purpose, at its core, is to protect workers and their working conditions.

The discovery of asbestos products installed in the new Perth Children’s Hospital a little over a week ago has everyone asking the same questions. How does this happen? How can we have lethal products end up on a children’s hospital in 2016 after all products containing asbestos were banned from Australia in 2003?

Right now, we have hundreds of workers and their families justifiably fearful that they are sitting on a potential time bomb. It can take up to 20 years for the ravaging effects of asbestosis to show its hand; our thoughts are with them and they deserve an explanation.

Asbestos products containing 0.1 percent of Chrysotile (asbestos) are deemed to be hazardous. The CFMEU takes the view that there is no safe threshold for asbestos levels. Independent testing we conducted on samples from the atrium panels at the Perth Children’s Hospital showed a level of 7.5 percent. This is highly toxic and will mean years of anxiety for those exposed.

Since its discovery there has been a lot of blame as to how this has occurred. The fact is, it has been allowed to happen on several fronts. It has been said by John Holland – the principal contractor of the Perth Children’s Hospital – and the WA state government that the product in question, imported in Australia by Yuanda was tested and cleared in China prior to its importation.

It has been widely reported that testing procedures in China are dubious at best and fabricated at worst. Last year the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry informed all WA builders not to trust overseas certificates that imported products were free of asbestos and builders were urged to conduct their own testing to ensure materials were safe. Obviously this either hasn’t happened, testing procedures are faulty – or somebody’s not telling the truth.

We are certain that the problem unearthed at the Perth Children’s Hospital is not an isolated case. Last week, a CFMEU OHS rep found asbestos on the site of the Queensland state government’s new Executive Building.

Over 100 sites across Australia are now being retrospectively audited and tested to establish if they are contaminated with asbestos from imported products, including Fiona Stanley Hospital and the new Perth Sports stadium here in WA.

The outbreak of asbestos related products into our country has also shone a light on the recent China Free Trade Agreement and what protections are in place to safeguard the importation of unsafe products.

In February this year, federal Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton ordered an independent review of Australia’s asbestos border control management. The review has been completed, but its report kept confidential. This is simply not good enough. The report must be released immediately.

We cannot afford to have an “all care/no responsibility approach”. Principal contractors such as John Holland, all state and federal governments need to initiate new laws, regulations and procedures to keep unsafe products from entering our country and ending up on building sites putting workers and members of the community at risk.

Yuanda has broken the law. What are the consequences of their reckless, illegal behaviour?

The community is entitled to ask if it’s fair that our union and its members have been prosecuted for demonstrating to include more locally manufactured content and for improved safety on building sites, including the new Perth Children’s hospital, while companies like Yuanda can get off scot-free.

Unions have an important role to ensure optimum safety and protection of workers, their families and the community. We believe that no job is worth the life of one single worker. Just ask the people who lived in [former asbestos mining town] Wittenoom whether the work done there was worth the suffering and premature deaths of so many people.

We have a long, sorry history of asbestos exposure in this state, the repercussions of which are still being felt two generations on. Back then, we were kept in the dark about asbestos.

We don’t have that excuse any more. And so we should all demand that the government acts to enforce the law and stop putting our health in danger.

Mick Buchan
Secretary, CFMEU

Next article – Asbestos risk in Perth

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