Australia has been a major supplier of asbestos to the world for decades. It has also been a major corporate beneficiary of the revenue for the sale of this poisonous material.
The latest situation in Melbourne is a good example of all that is wrong with asbestos and worker exposure. According to reports in The Age newspapers in late October 2009, a property developer has allegedly offered $A57,000 to a safety officer on a hospital redevelopment project, allegedly, in order to turn a blind eye to the issue of asbestos at the site. According to the newspaper reports, some in the industry have described this payment as a bribe.
In February 2006, the developer received a report from an independent consultant advising that asbestos be removed prior to demolition. The developer removed most but not all. It is in this patch of remaining asbestos that two workers dug through the concrete with a jack hammer and concrete saw, generating considerable dust from the concrete and the asbestos. The workers were not wearing any protective masks.
Australia is dealing with the corporate immorality of James Hardie Industries, although there is much more that can be down. Wittenoom is closed and has almost disappeared. Companies are required to have an asbestos register for their properties. Tasmania is to become free of asbestos by 2020. There is a lot of activity, so much that the control of this poisonous material should not be handled in an ad hoc manner. Governmental vision is required to commit to the removal of asbestos and the clean-up of contaminated sites.
It is an easy moral call for governments – the toxicity of asbestos is indisputable, the public health risks are known. But it will cost. Governments are in a similar bind as with climate change policy – decades of prosperity at the same time as not considering the health legacy of that wealth.
There is no such thing as an emissions trading scheme for asbestos. It is suspected that, if at all, the government will need to apply surcharges or tax incentives for companies to support any initiative. This always flows back to the consumers paying ultimately. Anti-asbestos advocates can rightly feel angry at the fact that companies have benefited greatly from knowingly selling a toxic material, and the same companies are likely to benefit again through the clean-up. This may simply be the price we must pay for living in a society based on capitalism. God help the new “capitalist” nations like China.
SafetyAtWorkBlog hopes to finalise a podcast with journalist and author, Matt Peacock, by the end of this week. Peacock is the author of Killer Company