February 23, 2019

Trades union forced ACT asbestos removal, not health concerns

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The union also took out an advertisement in The Canberra Times warning “householders, prospective buyers and renovators” about deadly brown asbestos fluff insulation two months later.

In the ultimatum secretary Peter O’Dea claimed the health of workers exposed to the asbestos was not being taken seriously and that the government continued to permit the use of asbestos in the ACT “fully knowing the health implications”.

But the most damning aspect of the inquiry, he said, was that the casualties of exposure to asbestos “through government and departmental negligence” were not to be considered.

“It can do nothing for those who due to having built, worked or lived in buildings with asbestos have developed cancer of the lungs, larynx or stomach and/or breathing disorders,” Mr O’Dea said.

The council was also angry that the Commonwealth, through the National Capital Development Commission, continued to approve the use of asbestos despite its knowledge the substance was dangerous to people’s health.

Mr O’Dea also writes that the working party had no powers to investigate asbestos in non-government buildings and laments that no one is concerned for the safety and care of people living in homes laden with asbestos.

“Who will pick up the tab for its removal? We have been informed that at least 800 such homes have already been identified,” he said.

The cabinet-in-confidence documents show asbestos was removed from the National Library in 1984 because the Hawke government was concerned about the threat of significant industrial action, not the health implications.

The Trades and Labour Council had picketed the library for about three months over the issue in 1983 which caused inconvenience to users and threatened the collection.

The council wanted the asbestos removed but the government’s first investigation showed there was no health threat to workers and no action was taken.

The National Archives papers show the government approved $1.2 million in funding because of the in-principle agreement given to the union to end the picketing of the library.

The union’s list of demands included that the government advertise the dangers of asbestos insulation in private dwellings.

Documents submitted to cabinet request urgent action because of the threat of significant industrial disruption if a decision on expenditure was not made.

“Any delays or repudiation of that agreement now would be seen by the TLC as a breach of faith and it is anticipated that extensive and strong industrial action would be certain,” a submission by ministers, including Territories Minister Tom Uren, said.

The Hawke government was also concerned about the proposal creating a precedent for asbestos removal from other Commonwealth buildings and facilities. Several departments argued strongly for a delay until all buildings in the territory could be assessed.

Expert advice to cabinet from the Commonwealth Institute of Health said there was no significant health risk from the presence of asbestos in the library and removal of it was not supported.

However this was at odds with the independent report compiled by Kevin Purse and Ian Furness of the South Australian Asbestos Advisory Committee that was scathing of the ACT’s “total absence of legislative and ancillary provisions concerning all aspects of asbestos usage, control and removal”.

They said historically the hazards posed by airborne asbestos dust had been known as far back as 1918 but had been largely neglected.

“Despite this, legislative provisions have been totally lacking as in the case of the ACT or not implemented as has been the case in other states,” they said.

“Together with poor management practices this has resulted in workers being subjected to totally unwarranted health hazards.”

Former Hawke government adviser Peter Conway said at the time there had been a realisation asbestos in the territory was going to be an issue.

“I think it was a growing awareness that we had a problem and had to do something about it,” Mr Conway said.

The former chair of the first ACT Asbestos Working Party, Ben Selinger, says the National Library was the first attempt to deal with asbestos in the ACT.

“We had no regulations, no way of dealing with it except for trying to find another jurisdiction whose rules and regs we could just use,” Dr Selinger said.

Dr Selinger, who was a reader in chemistry at the Australian National University, said it was the union that forced the government to take action on the issue.

“They had placards saying One Fibre Kills and so on which were wrong, but they got the public onside, they got things moving and Tommy Uren, who was the minister, said ‘Look, get me out of this hole. I want to see something done’,” he said.

“Like most campaigns if you want to get something done you overstate it and they certainly did that.”

Dr Selinger said he doesn’t know how much was publicly known about asbestos at the time but certainly within scientific and regulatory authorities a “lot was known”.

“Asbestos has been an issue since Roman times,” he said.

“By post war its effects, like smoking, were pretty well established but enthusiasm for doing something about it was pretty low.”

Dr Selinger said the asbestos working party he chaired had been disbanded after a few years and the incoming working party dealt with the issue of loose-fill asbestos in residential properties.

“The Commonwealth was running the ACT, this was a standard material that was authorised to be used, so most people then quite naturally assumed it was fine,” he said.

The removal of asbestos from the National Library paved the way for new asbestos guidelines for the ACT, the first ACT Asbestos Advisory Committee, the ACT Asbestos Branch and the loose-fill insulation removal program.

The ACT Administration wrote to householders in the ACT about the Mr Fluffy loose-fill insulation in 1987 when it believed that up to 8000 houses could have been affected.

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Trades union forced ACT asbestos removal, not health concerns