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In a landmark settlement, asbestos manufacturer James Hardie settled with a local Adelaide home renovator who developed mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure. The settlement marks an interesting development in asbestos-related case law in Australia.

Home renovators tend to face the biggest risk of exposure. Australia banned the use of asbestos in 2003, however, many older homes still can contain harmful fibres.

In Amaca Pt Ltd v Werfel [2019] SASC 29, Amaca, formally ‘James Hardie’; a major products manufacturer that utilised asbestos in its products over several decades, was found at fault for failing to educate renovators about the dangers of the materials used within the manufacturing of its products.

Here is a closer look at this case and how it highlights the need for asbestos awareness training.

Renovator Was Diagnosed with Mesothelioma in 2017

The story begins in the late 1990s. Mathew Werfel was renovating several homes. Mr. Werfel was exposed to asbestos fibres whilst sanding and painting the eaves of the house. As with many home renovators, Mr. Werfel assumed that the eaves on the home were safe. He outlined that you cannot easily detect the difference between asbestos sheeting and gyprock with a simple physical inspection.

Despite the enacted asbestos ban in the Australian building industry, older homes may still possess materials made with the deadly material.

After a mesothelioma diagnosis in 2017, Mr. Werfel sued James Hardie (Amaca); the manufacturer of the eaves on the homes that he renovated.

Defence lawyers for James Hardie argued that Mr. Werfel was a smoker and that the balance of probabilities couldn’t be established as the plaintiff had insufficient evidence linking exposure to his rare form of cancer. However, upon appeal, the South Australian Employment Tribunal ruled in favour of the plaintiff and awarded Mr. Werfel #3m in damages.

Part of the Third Wave of Victims Exposed to Asbestos

Mathew Werfel is not alone. He is part of a ‘third wave’ of victims coming forward with claims for mesothelioma linked to asbestos exposure.

The first wave includes those exposed to the material in the mining industry and workers in asbestos factories. The second wave includes the tradesmen who used the material.

The first two waves involved direct exposure to the material before the dangers were widely known. The third wave includes victims exposed to the material after the ban, mostly through untested materials in homes and buildings.
In 2018, over 700 Australians filed compensation claims for mesothelioma. Over half of those claims were against James Hardie and the majority involve home renovators.

To assist in the settlements, James Hardie established the Asbestos Injuries Compensation Foundation (‘AICF’). However, some analysts expect the future awarded claims will exceed the $1.8 billion that James Hardie has placed into the AICF.

Advocates want James Hardie and other manufacturers to take responsibility for their past mistakes. Whilst these companies have already ceased manufacturing with asbestos, people want to increase awareness of the dangers of exposure.

Asbestos Awareness Training for Renovators

One proactive step that renovators can take is learning how to identify harmful fibres. Understanding the types of materials that are most likely to contain asbestos allows renovators to avoid work that involves direct exposure.

After World War II, builders used asbestos cement for over half of all homes built in New South Wales. By the late 1960s, about 25% of all homes in Australia had asbestos cement cladding. The harmful material has not appeared in domestic building materials since the late 1980s. Homes built before 1990 may contain some form of an asbestos product.

Through awareness training, home renovators can develop the skills and knowledge needed to remain safe while completing renovations on older homes.

The case against James Hardie is just one example of the dangers of exposure. If you currently work as a home renovator, ensure that you understand these dangers and how to avoid them. Consider enrolling in an awareness training program.

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