Ministerial Statement - Asbestos Management Review

16 August 2012


Madam Deputy Speaker, on the 14th of March this year, in my first Ministerial statement on workplace health and safety in this place, I said that every Australian who goes to work should return home safely.

I know both sides of the House endorse this universal, human right. 

Today I reaffirm our commitment to this principle.

And, just as in the workplace, Australians of course deserve to be safe once they are at home too.

 Safety of our citizens is a fundamental role of government.

 But there is a clear and present danger to our workplace and domestic safety, I speak of asbestos.

 The International Labour Organisation has reported that about every five minutes someone around the world dies of an asbestos-related disease.

 Nearly 80 percent of worldwide asbestos production between 1900 and 2004 has occurred since 1960 – constituting somewhere between 143 and 182 million tonnes. 

 This is despite the fact that medical information about the hazards of asbestos was at a knowledge peak by this time half a century ago.

 I have been hearing this all my life in the Labor movement, as I am sure many other of my colleagues have on each side of the House, these following words:

 ...What we could learn from…., what we’re going to do…., what we’re going to set up…. 

 And to be fair, much has been achieved, including various bans of asbestos. 

 Much of the progress was achieved by the hard and continuing struggle by Australian trade unions.  And I would like to acknowledge the late Bernie Banton and my Ministerial colleague Greg Combet among a range of campaigners.

It was an inevitable development of these strong and impassioned efforts that a Labor Government, under my Ministerial predecessor Senator Chris Evans, commissioned the Asbestos Management Review on the 29th of October 2010.

And I’ll come to the details of this Review shortly.

 The compelling reasons for commissioning the report however twist through our long workplace health and safety story as a tragic fibre in a deadly web.

 Asbestos was widely utilised throughout Australia for much of the 20th century.

 This nation had one of the highest rates of usage of asbestos during that period in public buildings and residential properties. 

 As a consequence, today Australia has the highest reported per capita incidence of asbestos-related disease in the world.

 More Australians have died of asbestos related diseases than were killed in the First World War.

 Due to extensive asbestos use throughout the country, and incubation periods of up to 50 years or more between exposure and the manifestation of disease, the sad reality is that Australians will continue to contract and die from asbestos-related diseases for many years to come.

 Despite the Australia-wide ban on the production, importation or use of asbestos or asbestos products that was introduced in 2003, asbestos can still be found in older public buildings and residences.

 This is usually in the form of asbestos cement (fibro) walls, both internal and external, and corrugated roofing and pipes and in many other products such as vinyl floor tiles, lagging on pipes and insulation in wood heaters.

 It would surprise many people just how widely used asbestos has been.  In addition to walls and corrugated roofing, asbestos can be present in:

  • Fire blankets and curtains

  • Pipes and tubes

  • Shingles or tiles

  • Asbestos tape and rope – and some sealants, putties, adhesives

  • Textured paints and coatings

  • Brake pads and clutch facings.

 Even though the mining and industrial use of asbestos has all but been banished from Australia - Asbestos can potentially appear across almost all of our daily activities. 

 Asbestos remains one of the most serious issues in our workplaces – but it is increasingly clear that it is much more than this.

 642 people died of mesothelioma in 2010, perhaps the most insidious form of asbestos related disease – this equates to over 45 percent - almost half - of the national road toll in 2010 (which was 1,352 deaths).

 Mesothelioma has a latency period of between 20 to 50 or more years after exposure.  Meaning that workers exposed to asbestos a generation ago might still contract the disease, which is always fatal and for which there is no cure.

 The life expectancy of a person diagnosed with this deadly disease is between 10 and 12 months.

 More than 650 Australians are diagnosed with mesothelioma most years and experts predict that this rate will not taper off until 2022.

 This means that as a country we face another 10 years of increasing asbestos deaths before we begin to see the numbers start to reduce, and many more years until those diseases no longer kill large numbers of Australians.

 Sadly for those Australians that have been exposed to asbestos, in whatever setting, there is nothing that can be done to turn back time and protect them from asbestos exposure.

 But this Labor Government is committed to protecting the health of Australians who might still yet be exposed to asbestos, unless actions are taken immediately.  

 There are huge amount of asbestos in the built environment, and the greatest risk to Australians is the risk of exposure to home renovators, tradespeople, and demolition workers and people living in houses being renovated.

 DIY Risk

 Every weekend, around our great country, thousands of Australians undertake projects to enhance and improve their number one investment – their castle being their home.

 But the hidden truth is that this can also pose a serious danger to their health.

 Amid the obvious DIY dangers of power tools, ladders and hammers hitting thumbs lurks asbestos, that malevolent building material so widely used in Australia until the 1990’s – and wasn’t fully banned until 2003.

 Asbestos poses a danger in our own homes, so we must take care.

 An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Australians will be diagnosed with asbestos related disease over the next 20 years, and researchers, policy makers and we in the Gillard Government fear the third wave of asbestos deaths from people exposed in the home.

 This ‘third wave’ includes men and women who built, renovated or demolished a house, garage or fence containing asbestos or those who innocently washed-asbestos-laden clothes.

 About a third of homes built between 1945 and the late 1980s contain some asbestos products – in walls, ceilings, eaves, kitchens, bathrooms, vinyl floor tiles, sheds and garages.

 In late June I joined (in Melbourne) with hosts from the television renovation show The Block and the major hardware retailer Mitre 10, and asbestos awareness groups, to help raise awareness for DIY renovators about the dangers of asbestos.

 We launched a new brochure called - Identifying Asbestos in your Home, a pamphlet specifically designed to help alert DIY renovators where asbestos might be found in homes and what it may look like.

 It has been adapted from a book by Brian Sketcher from Asbestos Audits Queensland and funded through the Federal Government’s Asbestos Innovation Fund.

 The Asbestos Innovation Fund is designed to develop practical programs to raise awareness of asbestos and its management and removal.

 We know that Australians love getting in and having a go – renovations and fixing things around the home – it’s one of our great national pastimes.

 But we all do need to take care not to expose ourselves or our families to asbestos.

 All home renovators should get advice before renovating.  So just like we are encouraged to “Dial before you dig”, I’d urge everyone to take their time to ensure the appropriate steps are taken to protect themselves and their families.

 If anyone has any doubt at all, there are qualified asbestos removalists in every State and Territory.

 Home renovation is a national passion and pre-occupation in Australia, but we do need to protect ourselves and those we love the most from accidental exposure to this silent killer.

 It is important to recognise that far away from the family home, asbestos exposure is also possible through asbestos tailings, old mines and mills, land fill, and illegally dumped asbestos.

 The Asbestos Management Review

 It is for all these reasons that this Labor Government prioritised the need for an Asbestos Management Review, of which the report and findings we release today.

This review was tasked with making recommendations for the development of a national strategic plan to improve asbestos awareness and management and was undertaken over the past 18 months.

It has been headed by Geoff Fary who was assisted by an Advisory Group comprised of experts across a range of professions.

The members of the Advisory Group were:

  • Mr Jim Barrett – Executive Director of the Australian Constructors Association

  • Mr Paul Bastian – National Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union

  • Mr Lindsay Fraser AM – Assistant Secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union

  • Dr Robert Guthrie – Adjunct Professor of Workers’ Compensation and Workplace Laws at Curtin University

  • Mr Tim Hammond – Barrister at Francis Burt Chambers, Perth

  • Ms Sylvia Kidziak AM – Managing Director of SL Engineering

  • Professor Bruce Robinson – Director of the National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases

  • Ms Tanya Segelov – Partner, Turner Freeman Lawyers

  • Professor Nico van Zandwijk – Director of the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute.

 I thank each and all of these people in this place for their important contributions. 

 In addition to Dr Daniel Mulino in my office, and Dr Yossi Berger of the AWU, each of whom have helped guide my thinking on these matters.

 While different levels of government have individually and at times together agreed on asbestos related measures, the sad truth is that until this Review commissioned by the Gillard Government, Australia has never genuinely contemplated a comprehensive national strategy to manage asbestos and raise awareness about it.

 Understanding the Review

 At the rudimentary, ‘do not miss this point’ level, the Review confirms that action must result in a substantial increase in the number of people breathing less asbestos fibres.

 Despite all the hopeful discussions about durations of exposure or exposure levels, more asbestos fibres resident in the lungs is never better than less. 

 Cladding, encapsulation and supervision of such materials have in the past condemned some people to inhaling more not less asbestos fibres.  And some of them too will be killed by such exposure. 

 As a union organiser I remember anxious workers asking me if the small amount of asbestos fibres they had inhaled was likely to kill them. 

 “Probably not” I told them, “probably not”. 

 That’s the best I could tell them… “probably not”. 

 And I knew at the time that there is no known minimum safe level for asbestos fibres. 

 Show me the scientist who is prepared to say which small group of asbestos fibres I’m inhaling now is the one that will not harm me?

 The New York medical researcher Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, renowned for his life’s work on asbestos, concluded that the asbestos catastrophe resulted in part from human failure to anticipate its scale. 

 The situation he described in a paper published after his death refers to the industrial nations where asbestos companies and their insurers have had to bear substantial financial responsibility for the toll of asbestos disease. 

 Dr. Selikoff observed:

 “The asbestos disaster did not result from superficial miscalculations. Rather, it resulted from very careful calculations, many of which were wrong. They were made not only by scientists but by individuals who were skilled in making estimates (e.g., auditors and actuaries for insurance companies that provided policies to companies making asbestos products). They were wrong in their predictions and are now liable for huge sums of money. These are troubling reflections, particularly when we remember that “statistics are human beings with the tears wiped away.”

 The toll in human suffering is increased where the responsible parties escape, with impunity, liability for the tragic human consequences of their actions.  This is the case still in countries where there are still thriving asbestos industries.

 Key recommendations

 For the benefit of the House let me walk Members through some of the key recommendations arising from the report.

 The Review recommends:

  • That the Australian Government lead and advocate for all jurisdictions to agree to the development of a National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Awareness and Management in Australia. 

  • This an issue that cuts across state boundaries and across industry demarcations

  • The review has observed that:

 “Current work health and safety laws provide some framework for the management of asbestos issues within the workplace but there is no coordinated framework in place in relation to non-employment-related exposure. This needs to be addressed at a national level.”

  •  The report argues that dealing with Australia’s asbestos legacy requires a national and systematic approach.

 The Review report also recommends that:

  • That the Australian Government support and legislate for the establishment of a new national agency to have responsibility for the implementation, review, refinement and further development of the plan

  • That the National Strategic Plan provide for investigation of the prioritised removal of asbestos containing materials from government and commercial buildings by 2030

  • That the National Strategic Plan provide for a requirement that an asbestos content report (ACR) be undertaken by a competent assessor to determine and disclose the existence of ACMs in residential properties constructed prior to 1987 at the point of sale or lease, and prior to renovation, together with a property labelling system to alert workers and potential purchasers and tenants to the presence of asbestos.

 When we announced the Review nearly 2 years ago, Professor Bruce Robinson, the director of the National Centre for Asbestos-Related Diseases, said he believed the national review was a major step forward.

 To quote Professor Robinson

 "A successful strategy involves more than just one ministry, one area.  It needs the best people in the country to put their minds together and work out how to stop people being exposed in the future."

 With this Review we have brought good people together.  And we shall  listen to them with forensic passion.

Those who have suffered and died from mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases had lives with unfulfilled potential – from community sports stars, to fitters and turners, to country town chippies, to mums and dads.

But we will never know what they might have achieved because they are lost to us.

And we will lose more of them to this implacable grim reaper.

Just as their wives and husbands, sons and daughters, workmates and cousins, mothers and fathers will lose them.

So we must act, to protect.

I thank the Asbestos Management Review panel for their thorough work. 

The full report will be available online shortly.

Be assured this Government will consider their recommendations carefully and speedily.

This report demonstrates how critical and urgent the issue is.

It is an issue for all levels of government. 

It is an issue that is affecting people at work, in schools, in hospitals and at home.

I am going to consult with all jurisdictions and all of the groups that have campaigned for action on asbestos to develop a quick response to the review.

This is a once in a generation report.

And I expect that the change that comes from our response to it will be substantial.

Many lives are counting on it.

I thank the House.