In November 2017, the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency released two important documents at the annual summit in Canberra reporting on Australia’s work towards the country being asbestos free.
The first one was The Progress Report, which highlights a series of case studies from across Australia to show how the work supporting the National Strategic Plan is delivered and the second one, and first of its kind in Australia, was the National Asbestos Profile.
The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency says the profile follows the template developed by the World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation and draws on best available research and data sources to provide a historical perspective on past exposures to asbestos, as well as information on the current management of asbestos in Australia.
The ASEA says the profile provides information on the consumption of the various types of asbestos, populations at risk from current and past exposures, the system for inspection and enforcement of exposure limits, as well as the social and economic burden of asbestos-related diseases.
The document supports Australia’s National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Management and Awareness and over time will be used to measure progress made towards eliminating asbestos‑related diseases in Australia.
The National Asbestos Profile highlights the industries affected by asbestos including the estimated total number of workers exposed to asbestos in Australia and industries where exposure to asbestos is present in Australia and those industries with the largest number of workers potentially exposed to asbestos.
According to the report exposure to asbestos occurred in a wide range of occupations and industries, with the report finding there is no data to estimate with any accuracy the total number of workers exposed to asbestos in Australia. It goes on to say that historically, asbestos exposure occurred among workers who worked with raw asbestos, mining and milling it or processing it in textile or asbestos cement factories and subsequently, other workers who used the manufactured asbestos product were exposed, including carpenters, plumbers, insulation installers and automotive mechanics. The report also found that specific occupations recording high numbers of exposed workers included workers at Wittenoom, power station workers, railway workers, shipbuilders and navy workers, stevedores, boilermakers, carpenters and joiners, builders and builders labourers.
Since 2003 the use, reuse and selling of any type of asbestos has been prohibited, but the AESA says the country is left with a legacy of past consumption, with many asbestos products remaining in situ today, primarily in the built environment, which means the risk of exposure to asbestos continues and affects not only workers, but also the general population.
“The entire Australian population is exposed to background levels of asbestos with significantly lower fibre concentrations on average,” says the ASEA.
“The total number of persons diagnosed with mesothelioma in Australia between 1945 and 2015 is approximately 16,800. However, not all of these cases are a result of occupational exposure and this figure does not include other diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.”
The ASEA has established a national voluntary register to record the details of members of the community who think they may have been exposed to asbestos, including what they call non-occupational settings i.e. home renovators etc.
Since its commencement in June 2013 and up to July 2017, there have been 5,898 registrations and although the registrations do not record confirmed exposure, the data says the ASEA may be a useful indicator of actual or potential exposure events and trends across Australia.
So based on the ACMs that still exist in Australia, the workers at risk of exposure to asbestos are:
- building and construction workers
- asbestos removalists
- telecommunication and electricity providers
- waste and landfill operators
- fitters and machinists
The ASEA say the mining industry may also be at risk of exposure due to the presence of naturally occurring asbestos.
The report looked at the National Data Set for Compensation-based Statistics (NDS), which contains information on workers’ compensation claims
that involve work-related disease and found between 2008–09 and 2010–11, that 63% of compensated mesothelioma claims and 73% of compensated asbestosis claims were made by tradespersons and labourers.
As Australia was one of the highest users per capita in the world of asbestos products, the implementation of regulatory controls for workplaces, which has been happening across the country since the 1980’s, has meant the removal of asbestos materials has been carried out by licensed businesses with personnel trained and equipped to carry out the work in a way that minimises potential for occupational and environmental exposure.
The AESA suggest the now troubling aspect of asbestos for the Australian community is the evidence that shows an increasing proportion of mesothelioma cases are arising from non-occupational exposures or so-called third wave exposures that are generally associated with low-dose asbestos exposure or short term high-dose exposures and include disturbances of asbestos while living in or renovating a home containing ACM.
“The NAP provides a useful tool for other countries to learn more about the impact asbestos has had on Australia for past, current and future generations.”
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