Asbestos worker supporter gains Australian honour 1

For many years Vicki Hamilton has been a tireless worker in support of those suffering from asbestos-related diseases.  She, and her colleagues at the Gippsland Asbestos Related Disease Support Inc. (GARDS), are based in regional Victoria and often struggle for recognition of their efforts.  In the 2014 Australia Honours list, Vicki was awarded an Order of Australia ” for service to the community through support for people with asbestos-related diseases”.

It is well-deserved and I congratulate her on her achievement.  I hope it, in some way, makes her job easier.

Kevin Jones

Australian media fishes for bad news on NBN Co and asbestos and misses the good news 2

Prior to the 2013 election, the Australian media, particular the News Limited newspapers, went to town  on the  previous (Labor) government over its handling of the National Broadband Network (NBN) strategy.  The media sniffed a political vulnerability as it had in the Home Insulation Program and other economic stimulus packages, such as the Building the Education Revolution, even though the economic program is seen by some as a very successful strategy.

The NBN has several OHS contexts but asbestos is the most prominent.  NBN needed to install its fibre-optic cables through the established and old infrastructure of a major competitor and partially government-owned telecommunication company, Telstra.  Many of Telstra’s old pits were constructed using asbestos.

On 5 November 2013 The Australian newspaper published its latest article on NBN and asbestos but the content of its own article shows how much hyperbole the newspaper has employed in this long campaign and that NBN Co seems to be managing its asbestos safety well. More…

No one is mentioning OHS prosecution in Telstra/NBN asbestos stoush 20

Australian politics is currently embroiled in a dispute generated by a contractor entering the telecommunications pits of the asset owner. Some, or many, of the pits contain asbestos and the contractor’s work, the laying of new fibre-optic cables, may disturb the asbestos. There are many other concerns but that is the nub.

The Australian newspaper has been running on this issue for many weeks but one article in today’s edition called “Tak​ing a dig: will Bill come up short?” (page 9 – online paywall), by David Crowe, caught my attention. Crowe reports that:

“The Aus­tralian has been told Tel­stra chief ex­ec­u­tive David Thodey wrote to Shorten in De­cem­ber 2009 to ar­gue against his pro­posal for a ‘‘proac­tive’’ pro­gram to re­move as­bestos from the com­pany’s pits. Thodey gave three rea­sons for not pro­ceed­ing: the cost; the risk of re­leas­ing as­bestos; and the fact plans for the NBN were in train but had not been locked in.”

I realise that the OHS legislative concept of “reasonably practicable” does not extend to all facets of life but if it were applied to the current asbestos exposure (and I think it could) Thodey’s three reasons given above would be crucial in any potential prosecution, particularly if the reasons in Thodey’s response to Bill Shorten were listed in order of priority. In OHS law, cost is the last element to be considered in determining a reasonably practicable hazard control measure.

More…

Chronic asbestos deaths, sudden mining disasters – both indicate deep corporate problems 5

It is less than a week until the premiere of Devil’s Dust, a movie about asbestos in Australia and the corporate maneuverings of James Hardie Industries to minimise its exposure to compensation claims but its lessons spread beyond asbestos to politics, corporate responsibility and individual morality.

In a recent article on the movie, the depiction of then New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, was mentioned.  The politics of asbestos is well shown in the Carr depiction.  The asbestos issue seemed to have little importance until a political value was placed on the issue.  Carr, a Labour Party politician, then acted, met people affected by asbestos-related diseases and made clear statements of moral significance about asbestos and corporate responsibility.

Recently Crikey reminded its readers of some comments on asbestos compensation from 2007.  Apparently, the now-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Julie Bishop stated

“I have enormous sympathy for those who suffered asbestos-related diseases,” she said in a statement to The Australian. “There were members of the CSR executive management team who also died of asbestos-related diseases who had worked at Wittenoom.

“As one of the lawyers in the case, I acted ethically and professionally at all times in accordance with client instructions.” [link added]

There is no doubt that Bishop acted ethically and professionally in her role as a lawyer but by 2007, the issue of asbestos exposure and compensation had moved to a moral basis.  Are companies who resist providing compensation for illnesses caused by their products being heartless or responsible corporate citizens? More…

Devil’s Dust – Australian movie on asbestos and corporate morality 7

On November 11 and 12 2012, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation will broadcast “Devil’s Dust”, a two-part movie about asbestos in Australia.  This is not a documentary on asbestos-related diseases.  It follows the story of investigative journalist Matt Peacock from the 1970s to the present day in parallel with the corporate machinations of James Hardie Industries and its former CEO, John Reid and the life, times and death of Bernie Banton.

To many Australians, bits and pieces of each of these narrative streams will be familiar but Devil’s Dust illustrates the moral linkages between these streams leading to a powerful story of corporate greed, strength of character and man’s inhumanity to man.  The workplace safety context of Devil’s Dust is obvious – ignoring or hiding information about harm to workers, the management of many workplace risks through allowances and “danger money”.

The television production values depict the times perfectly and for those who know of the asbestos risks, particularly readers of Matt Peacock’s book “Killer Company” which inspired the movie, the opening few seconds summarise major issues in the asbestos story – sacks of asbestos on a truck, cigarette smoking and dust being bashed from work clothes.  Later in the first part, other issues are touched on – the washing of asbestos-contaminated work clothes by wives, asbestos in trains, asbestos in carpet underlay and asbestos used as road toppings. More…

Vulnerability and arrogance 15

“How can this be allowed to happen nowadays?” the distressed wife of a seriously injured worker asked me recently.  Her husband was sitting next to her, his eyes still victims of the recent terror that nearly killed him.  She saw that and struggled to join him in his very dark and personal space.  This now would become a life time job for her.

This meeting captured for me one of the most fundamental factors at most workplaces.  That workers’ most common feeling at work is that of vulnerability.  Of course many workers find comfort and pride in their job.  Of course it feeds them and their families.  Of course it can provide personal identity and purpose.  And of course there are many managers who understand all this.

But it’s also true that much too often this is not the case.  That’s one reason why when suddenly factories or mines close, or car manufacturers ‘shed’ 200 workers, or car part factories go bust workers are not only shocked, but it substantiates their sense of vulnerability, “What a shock, I thought they loved us!”

Not only is this painfully evident when a negligently poor H&S standard results in crippling a worker for life, but is typically present on a daily basis.  Permanent fear of job loss results.  The fact that a worker can be disciplined or sacked for a number of events that can be defined and redefined by creative managers feeds that feeling.  That’s another reason why so much bullying and humiliation occur and so much stress is experienced. More…

Who would buy asbestos? 5

A busy mum, two little kids playing on the carpet in the corridor.  She is busy pulling out an old gas heater from the cavity in the wall.  Dust everywhere.  She wants to recreate the old fashioned open fireplace that was there.  The job will take a few days, she’s not in a hurry.    Then the neighbour asks her gently, “Have you checked, we had asbestos behind our fireplace?”  Mum’s blood goes cold.  She looks at the kids.

‘Who in their right mind would buy asbestos?’  you may ask.  After all the publicity, the growing numbers of tragic mesothelioma sufferers in Australia, the lung cancers, the famous court cases, the Hardies’ debacle.

There are three main ways you can still buy asbestos in Australia.  First, a small number of components used in industry and the defence forces still contain asbestos in sealed conditions.  For example, a shock absorber in the front wheel assembly of an aeroplane may contain an asbestos gasket.  Certain specialised gaskets used in segments of the chemical industry may contain asbestos.  The risk to workers and the general public is very small.

Then you can buy asbestos when you purchase gravel made from crushed masonry from demolished buildings that contained asbestos.  Some 10 million tonnes of such bricks and concrete are recycled every year in Australia.  More…

Upcoming cancer in the workplace seminar 1

In November 2010 Geoff Fary left his role with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to chair the Asbestos Management Review. On May 3 2012 Geoff Fary will join other keynote speakers in a full day seminar in Melbourne called “Cancer in the workplace – a forum on practical solutions for prevention“.  This event has been jointly organised by the ACTU and the Cancer Council of Australia.

Australia’s trade union movement has a good record in asbestos- and cancer-related seminars but rarely do they gain much traction outside of their sector.  The cooperation with the Cancer Council will broaden the appeal of the seminar into more general workplace health consideration, particularly with a speaker from the United States, Lucille Servidio of Capaccio Environmental Engineering.  Local speakers are not overlooked with, probably, Associate Professor Tim Driscoll being the most recognisable participant to OHS professionals.

With the increasing attention to workplace health, concern over cancer clusters and breast cancer risks in nightshift workers, these very affordable seminars often give terrific value – not something that one always gets from the seminars that cost of $A2000 a day.

Kevin Jones

Accuracy on OHS laws, services and products is essential 5

The following article illustrates how important it is for companies to maintain accuracy when writing a media release about safety laws.  The internet allows for inaccuracies to become widely distributed and for these to gain some legitimacy through the re-publication on various OHS, magazine and news websites.

Asbestos Audits International issued a media release in early April 2012 stating the following:

“On January 1st, 2012, new Australian Model Health and Safety legislation came into effect dictating workplace buildings constructed before 2004 must have an asbestos audit. The legislation outlines building owners, building managers and property managers are responsible for these audits. More…

Tread carefully when speaking with the media 1

One of the most important professional lessons is to only talk about what you know.  I found this out personally after a disastrous pre-conference workshop many years ago where I did not understand what the workshop participants expected until I began seeing blank and quizzical expressions from the, thankfully, small audience.

On Australian radio on 14 December 2011, a geologist became embroiled in an interview on asbestos and cancer.

Ian Plimer is a well-known Australian geologist and is a professor of mining geology at the University of Adelaide.  Plimer is a controversial and outspoken critic of climate change.  The climate change debate is a fringe consideration in occupational health and safety but today,  Professor Plimer entered the debate on asbestos, a carcinogen that is responsible for hundreds and thousands of work and non-work related deaths.

On ABC Radio, prominent Australian journalist and writer on asbestos industry issues, Matt Peacock, took Ian Plimer to task about Plimer’s 2008 claim that chrysotile, or white asbestos, is not carcinogenic.   More…