Asbestos Danger Still Lurks
There is perhaps nothing more frightening to a parent than hearing that the landfill beneath your childs school playground contains asbestos. Or that during recent construction work for the Governments school building program, there were safety breaches in the way asbestos was handled.
Asbestos is considered to be safe if it is covered and undisturbed, but if exposed, asbestos particles in the air can prove deadly to anyone who inhales them.
Asbestos can cause a range of lung diseases, such as Asbestosis and the fatal Mesothelioma. The Dust Diseases Tribunal of NSW believes there is no known safe level of asbestos exposure.
Following an audit of asbestos in schools, the NSW Government set up an asbestos management plan in late 2008, aimed at addressing the Department of Education and Trainings (DET) obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. As the controller of school premises, DET was required to establish a register to record the location of any known asbestos at NSW public schools and Tafes, along with a risk assessment rating.
School Principals are required to make sure that asbestos situations are controlled safely, and that staff, contractors and visitors know about the presence of asbestos, and the risks and management procedures. All occupiers of the premises must be given access to the register, which includes parents, students and neighbours. Where asbestos has been detected, proper work safety procedures must be followed by contractors, such as the use of protective equipment, a supervising health hygienist, and work only taking place out of hours. Only licensed removal contractors may dispose of exposed asbestos. All details about contracted work undertaken at known asbestos sites must go on the register.
It has now been suggested that a register be set up of all NSW land-fill sites known to contain asbestos, to help prevent a third wave of deaths, due to environmental exposure when asbestos is disturbed, such as through land development.
Initially, asbestos disease was thought to only affect miners and factory workers exposed between the mid- 40s and 1980, until it became clear that demolishing or renovating fibro homes built in the 50s, and ripping up carpet to expose asbestos-particles in underlay, was also hazardous.
In terms of compensation, a successful case must prove that a plaintiff was owed a duty of care, which was breached, causing them to suffer injury. There is no time limit to sue for dust diseases cases, because asbestos disease symptoms can take many years to appear. Safety breaches now could have dire consequences years down the track.
An asbestos register would seem to offer one way to make organisations more accountable for work safety compliance, and provide public awareness about potentially hazardous sites. But it would be limited to known asbestos sites.