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Safe asbestos management crisis - information lacking

Safe asbestos management crisis - information lacking

Most of us know that asbestos in a residential or commercial building poses significant risk to the health of anyone working on it. The Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA), which came into effect last April, has shifted some of the legal responsibilities for this risk, and there is still much confusion as to liability and correct process.

Here at Asbestos Removal New Zealand we set out to create a basic guide for landlords and home owners to clarify their asbestos responsibilities under the new legislation. In the process of interviewing tradespeople from a range of relevant industries we uncovered a much broader issue with how asbestos is dealt with in this country, with serious health ramifications for those involved.

We think it is a problem bigger in scale than the leaky homes issue, and more dangerous than any other workplace health concern facing New Zealand today.

Asbestos is pervasive in this country. It was used extensively in New Zealand in the 20th century, and if a building was built between the late 1940s and late 1990s, it likely contains asbestos.

Tradespeople who work on buildings are particularly at risk for the aggressive cancer mesothelioma and other fatal diseases that can be caused by asbestos exposure. Of the 232 cases of mesothelioma that were notified to the National Asbestos Medical Panel between March 1992 and July 2012, asbestos processors, plumbers/fitters/laggers, and carpenters/builders accounted for 60%.

Talking to tradespeople who come into contact with asbestos, we discovered alarming gaps in knowledge and education. Paul from Laser Electrical highlighted the lack of certainty in his industry. "The problem is that we don’t know exactly what has asbestos in it," he says. "In simple terms we understand that fibrolite, soffits, and electrical boards might, but we don’t know what else. We don’t know clearly where we start and where we stop when it comes to looking for asbestos."

Paul’s call for clarity and effective guidelines was echoed by Jeff Henry, who works in the flooring industry. "There’s a real lack of knowledge in the flooring industry of best practice for safe asbestos management," he said. "We don’t just need industry seminars; we need an asbestos professional to create a specific best-practice guide for flooring. Members don’t know what that best practice looks like, and we don’t know where to go for the training."

An asbestos removalist who wishes to remain anonymous emphasised that getting rid of asbestos in this country will be a massive undertaking, and much more expensive than we realise. His biggest concern is that people don’t understand the steps they need to go through for asbestos removal, or the costs involved. Once they find out, they disappear. "Sometimes we do a quote for a client and then never hear from them again," he said. "Our assumption is that the cost is just too much for them and they have swept the issue under the carpet."

Another asbestos removalist told us of quoting for removal of an asbestos-containing roof from a warehouse in Auckland. Potentially lethal dust from the roof could be seen on tenants’ products stored inside. "We suspect that the tenants had no idea of the problem or the potential serious health risks," he said. "But the scale of the removal process was too large for the client to proceed with. It would have taken a couple of years to complete as it would need to be done area by area. And it would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Added to this cost for the client was the major impact of shutting the businesses down while the process was completed. The disruption is huge, and it’s a cost no one has factored in." As far as this removalist is aware, nothing further has been done on this warehouse roof.

Where building owners are able to ignore the problem, the serious health threat remains for anyone coming into contact with disturbed asbestos fibres. The removalist says that this puts contractors like himself in a difficult position. "If we dob these people in, it would be seriously detrimental to our business," he says. "We can’t be seen to be involved in the process of monitoring what people do with the information we give them."

We see an acute need for an independent authority to regulate asbestos management and ensure building owners are fulfilling their legal obligations. There also needs to be a more effective education campaign to drive awareness for landlords and homeowners, and the creation of official guidelines to protect workers in industries most effected by the health risks of asbestos exposure.

We started this process to create a guide to assist landlords to understand their responsibilities under the new legislation, what we have discovered is it is not just landlords and homeowners that need help, all the trades we spoke to are struggling to interrupt the safety issues around asbestos in a way that will protect their own staff, comply with the health and safety regulations and protect the public.


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