The asbestos Triffid goes national

The union campaign on the eradication of asbestos from the island of Tasmania has entered the national political arena in Australia.  On 29 October 2010, the Australian Minister for Workplace Relations, Chris Evans, announced that Geoff Fary, Assistant Secretary of the Australian Council for Trade Unions, will chair the newly established “Asbestos Management Review” (AMR).

The appointment and chairmanship are an acknowledgement that the trade union movement is the major advocate for occupational, public and environmental safety concerning asbestos in Australia.

Fary will be leaving his ACTU role in November 2010 to take up the new position.

One concern with the AMR, even in its early development is the task of raising awareness.  Chris Evans stated that:

“It is critical that we develop a comprehensive understanding of the scope of the problem and set clear targets as to how we address issues relating to awareness, management and removal of asbestos.”

There is the risk of inactivity on any issue that seeks to raise awareness.  As I wrote twelve months ago:

“The asbestos safety advocates should drop “awareness” from the week’s title because awareness equates to “aspirational targets”, former Prime Minister John Howard’s way of promising much and delivering nothing.  Just as everyone accepts that smoking causes lung cancer and climate change exists, people know that asbestos can kill.  Move away from awareness-raising to action.”

On the issue of asbestos, it could be argued that the community is already aware of the hazard, that how to manage asbestos is well-established and that there are clear guidelines and regulations on the removal and disposal of the product.  So, linking back to the Minister’s words above, the AMR tasks are to

“…develop a comprehensive understanding of the scope of the problem and set clear targets”.

A major contribution to our understanding of the asbestos problem is already answered by the Australian Mesothelioma Registry.

The challenge for Fary will be the setting of clear targets.  The core question will be “could Australia commit to being free of asbestos by [insert your own date]?”  The Tasmanian Government has committed to a target date of 2020.  With a larger landmass and more complicated jurisdictional structure, would 2040 be achievable for Australia?

Having strong parts of the union movement, with the support of the Tasmanian Government, commit to the eradication of asbestos in Tasmanian will make it difficult for Fary to accept anything less than a target of total removal.  Would he argue that the removal of asbestos is not “reasonably practicable” and that hazard reduction is sufficient?

It also seems that Fary will need to resolve once and for all what is the “safe level” of asbestos.  Unions and some OHS regulators insist that there is no safe level of exposure but others estimate there is a safe exposure level of asbestos.  Fary will need to establish a position of the AMR on this matter.

Other members of the Asbestos Management Review include:

One look at the Board Members of the Australian Constructors Association (ACA) shows just how extensive the asbestos review could be with almost all major construction companies represented.  Of course membership does not denote compliance but  if the ACA’s Executive Director, Jim Barrett, educates the members on the future control of asbestos, Australia will be better off.

On the eve of 2010 Asbestos Awareness Week, it is perhaps useful to listen to a Background Briefing podcast on the asbestos in Tasmania which covers many of the social, corporate and occupational issues around asbestos.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

2 thoughts on “The asbestos Triffid goes national”

  1. The taking of the asbestos issue up nationally was strongly promoted by a national joint union/activists campaign \”Towards a Safe Asbestos Free Environment\”. A national summit was held in June of this year, the conclusion of which resulted in a National declaration was (see http://www.ohsrep.org.au/news-views/campaigns/asbestos-awareness/national-asbestos-summit-june-2010/index.cfm). The federal government\’s announcement of this review and its terms of reference goes some way towards responding to the what participants at the national summit were seeking.

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