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Government must do more about Asbestos problem

Asbestos: biggest workplace killer – Government must do more now

The CTU is deeply concerned about the exposure to deadly asbestos Christchurch rebuild workers are experiencing. Fletchers, the major contractor responsible for a significant part of the rebuild project, will be in court on Friday facing possible charges for not complying with the law and keeping workers safe.

“Asbestos causes cancer. No exposure is safe. We have known this fact since at least 1986 when the World Health Organisation declared just that. Demolition workers, tradespeople, carpenters and householders may have been needlessly exposed to asbestos fibres in Christchurch. The Government should have been proactive in its approach to the presence of this known workplace carcinogen. The Government has a moral obligation to take urgent action. This should include monitoring the people who have been exposed, and compensating them if needed,” said CTU Policy Director, Bill Rosenberg.

“New Zealand is out of step with many other countries around the world as we fail to have a plan in place to eliminate asbestos. Banning all importation of asbestos products is a critical step. In Australia and the U.K., asbestos products are strictly banned at the border. Urgency should be given to upgrading the asbestos regulations rather than waiting until April 2015. There should be notification of work with asbestos, employers should be required to keep records of working with asbestos, and buildings known to contain asbestos should be registered,” Rosenberg said. The CTU listed twelve action points on asbestos.

“The Government has a goal of reducing workplace accidents by 25 percent by 2020. It must also have a goal around asbestos. The European Parliament has agreed to 'eradicate' asbestos by 2028.” Rosenberg said. “In New Zealand we should have a national plan to eliminate asbestos from buildings by 2030. The aim should be to completely eradicate asbestos from all workplaces,” said Rosenberg.

“MBIE estimates that 170 deaths occur a year from asbestos-related diseases, and that this will rise to over 300 as the results of the ‘asbestos boom’ of the 1970s make themselves felt. Even 170 is double the number of workplace deaths each year from injury – a number which is itself far too high. We can and must prevent more deaths in future decades,” said Rosenberg.

“The risks have been known to employers and government for thirty years. There is no excuse for putting off decisive action any longer.” Rosenberg said.

The NZCTU recommends:
1. An immediate priority to upgrading the asbestos health and safety regulations currently these are slated to come into force alongside the proposed Health and Safety at Work Act in mid-2015. This is too far away and the Minister of Labour should regulate as quickly as possible. Further amendments can be made following more detailed consultation.
2. As MBIE has proposed, the regulations should be based on the Australian approach which includes a presumption that asbestos is present in the built environment and therefore workplaces, and lowering the exposure limits which are out of line with international standards, and require more prescription in relation to removal work.
3. There should be mandatory licensing and training for those working with asbestos (both maintenance and demolition);
4. The distinction between friable and non-friable asbestos is unhelpful given the possible deterioration of previously non-friable asbestos. This should be removed.
5. A complete ban on the importation of asbestos-containing products should be implemented.
6. A National Plan to eliminate all asbestos containing material from the built environment by 2030.

Notification and registers
7. All work with asbestos notifiable under workplace health and safety legislation.
8. The Government should take urgent steps to implement a Health Surveillance scheme similar to that used in the United Kingdom for many years. This requires employers (or all persons conducting businesses or undertakings under the proposed law changes) to keep records of worker exposure to hazards such as asbestos for 40 years to allow tracking of long latency diseases such as those caused by asbestos exposure (see Part 26 of our submission on the Health and Safety Reform Bill).
9. All identified asbestos in Christchurch should be registered. If a building contains asbestos materials the priority should be to remove it. If asbestos is identified in a building it should be notified in LIM reports.
10. The National Asbestos Registers should be reinvigorated and improved including by making them compulsory.
11. Lung cancer should be registered and recorded in more detail.
12. There should be a system of notification by medical practitioners of all potential asbestos related conditions/exposures including, lung cancer and pleural plaques [asbestosis and mesothelioma are currently recorded].


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