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Asbestos discoveries and health issues are never far from Australian headlines. With one of the highest rates of asbestos-related illnesses in the world, ensuring your employees are trained in asbestos awareness and removal is a vital occupational health and safety (OHS) requirement for construction businesses Down Under.

From medical research into the health effects of exposure, to local discoveries and potential removal schemes, here are just a few of the asbestos headlines found in Australia last month.

Perth company fined for asbestos failure

The Western Australian branch of a national company has been fined $5,500 for failing to identify and report the location of asbestos at one its sites. After asbestos was discovered during a WorkSafe inspection conducted in 2010, the company did not fulfil its duty to create an asbestos register, in compliance with local work safety laws.

WorkSafe WA Commissioner Lex McCulloch explained that this fine was a reminder to all businesses to ensure asbestos is correctly identified and employees understand how to respond to this potentially deadly material.

"Unfortunately there is still a lot of asbestos in WA, and our workplace safety and health laws require that the presence and location of asbestos in workplaces is identified for everyone's safety," he said.

"Although the company did make some attempt to address the asbestos issue at its other workplaces, it did not ensure that information about asbestos at its workplaces was passed along to all relevant parties, including any outside contractors who worked at their sites."

If a building does contain asbestos, it is the responsibility of every party that holds any control or influence on the site to ensure contamination is well documented. This includes the employer, main contractor, property manager or building owner.

"Information about the presence and location of asbestos also needs to be made available to anyone who enters that workplace so the relevant precautions can be taken," Mr McCulloch continued.

"Asbestos products do not pose a risk to health if they are left undisturbed in buildings, however there is a serious risk of exposure to asbestos fibres if asbestos-containing materials are disturbed, unless basic safety precautions are followed."

Key union urges government to reject the CoA's recommendation

The Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union of Australia (CEPU) has spoken out in response to the Commission of Audit's (CoA's) recommendation to axe the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency.

Calling for the government to reject the COA's advice, the CEPU released a statement last month explaining the potential risks of losing this vital agency. A recent example of the benefits of this organisation is the recent rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN). This put tradespeople at risk of exposure and the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency was able to keep the damage to a minimum.

"Only last year, all work was temporarily stopped in pits and pipelines for the NBN when contractors disturbed asbestos while laying cable in western Sydney," CEPU New South Wales Assistant Secretary Shane Murphy said.

"This illustrates the ticking time bomb of asbestos out in the community, the continued danger it poses and the very real need for the safety agency."

The independent asbestos body is responsible for ensuring national action plans are in place and being followed. This has resulted in important asbestos safety and eradication practices, including the management of Australia's first National Asbestos Exposure Register.

In an attempt to convince the government to continue funding the agency, the CEPU has joined forces with asbestos support groups, lawyers, community leaders and other unions.

"Asbestos is a killer and national, preventative action is vital. You gamble with the health and wellbeing of tens of thousands of Australians if you cut safety budgets and play politics with asbestos," Mr Murphy concluded.

Study: Asbestos toxicity does not decline with time

A recent study released by leading international body Asbestos.com has revealed the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease – such as mesothelioma – does not diminish regardless of the time that has passed since exposure.

The study, named "Mesothelioma Risk After 40 Years Since First Exposure to Asbestos: A Pooled Analysis" – reviewed the exposure and health of more than 22,000 people, including direct and in-directly exposed individuals. Of those participants, more than 860 had developed mesothelioma.

Lead study author – Associate Professor at the School of Public Health, Curtin University in Western Australia, Alison Reid – explained the toxicity of asbestos within the body never expires.

"We have always known that the risk of mesothelioma increases the longer it is since you were first exposed," Ms Reid told Asbestos.com. "What the study has shown is that even after 45 years, there still is risk for developing the disease."

This study shows that no one lives long enough to survive the toxicity and risk of asbestos exposure, meaning those exposed to asbestos effectively have an "indefinite risk" of developing mesothelioma.

It has long been known that the latency period of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases is typically between 20 to 40 years. The purpose of this study was to determine if the risk of these conditions began to decline after this time. 

"The answer was a resounding no," the report concluded.

This research shows that no amount of asbestos exposure can be considered safe, which supports the vital importance of investing in asbestos awareness and response training to ensure your employees are protected.

If your are interested in improving the occupational health and safety of your staff, contact the team at AlertForce for information on an asbestos awareness and removal course.

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