Just like commercial businesses, local councils need exemplary training and education to develop a culture in which asbestos safety is taken seriously. Under the Work Health and Safety Act, a local council – and anyone delegated to conduct work on its behalf – is a ‘person or business conducting an undertaking’ (PBCU) and as such has a primary duty of care to ensure workers and others are not exposed to a risk to their health or safety. A senior manager in the council, for example, could be held personally liable for negligent actions that cause damage or injury to a person or property and it is therefore essential that local councils have a comprehensive policy in place to address all activities around the safe management and removal of asbestos. Training and education are the cornerstone of any such policy.

What are the obligations of local council when it comes to asbestos?

The ongoing legacy of asbestos use in Australia means that local council has a crucial role in working with government and communities to manage and remove asbestos safely and thoroughly.

In partnership with the Heads of Asbestos Coordination Authorities (HACA), Local Government NSW (LGNSW) developed a Model Asbestos Policy (MAP) in 2012 which was reviewed and updated in 2015. The Model Asbestos Policy was developed so that local councils had a consistent and comprehensive template on which to base their own policies and which complied with the necessary Work Health and Safety legislation.

Local council has important obligations in two respects:

  1. To the residents and public who occupy the Local Government Area (LGA)
  2. To the workers in council workplaces

Those obligations include the following responsibilities:

  • Educating residents by providing access to information and advice on the:
    • Prohibition of the use and re-use of asbestos containing materials (ACM)
    • Requirements in relation to development, land management and waste management
    • Risks associated with exposure to asbestos
    • Safe management of ACMs
    • Safe removal and disposal of small quantities of ACMs
  • Managing land – the council is responsible to managing public land and must do so with appropriate care where that land is or may be contaminated by asbestos including naturally occurring asbestos
  • Managing waste when the Council is the appropriate regulatory authority including:
    • Issuing clean-up notices to address illegal storage or disposal of asbestos waste or after an emergency
    • Issuing prevention or clean-up notices where asbestos waste has been handled unsatisfactorily
    • Issuing penalty notices for improper transport of asbestos
    • Applying planning controls to dispose of asbestos waste on site and seeking advice from the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA)
  • Operating or contracting a business to operate licensed landfill facilities that accept asbestos waste.

Local council is obliged to operate according to a wide range of legislation including, but not limited to:

  • Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 (NSW)
  • Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (NSW)
  • Local Government Act 1993 (NSW)

These responsibilities are clearly significant and wide ranging so having an asbestos management plan that is regularly updated and reviewed is key to ensuring that all obligations are met. Education and training of council staff – including those in senior positions – is the most effective way for councils to ensure they are meeting their responsibilities.

Unfortunately we have seen cases where training and education have been left by the wayside and a council’s relationship with the community has suffered as a result. Failure to notify workers of potential exposure, failure to develop and maintain an adequate asbestos management plan, and failure to adequately train employees can be disastrous for a local council but are breaches that can be relatively easily addressed with quality training. Creating a culture of responsibility and action within local council is an important way to make sure everyone knows how to do their bit to build as asbestos-aware environment. Recent cases have shown that this culture must be instilled at the most senior levels – if respect for legislated processes is not in place at the top of the council hierarchy, then it doesn’t stand a chance anywhere else.

There are plenty of good news stories as well. Our favourite recent one appeared in the Illawarra Mercury and reported Shellharbour City Council workers busting an illegal asbestos dumper who got embarrassingly bogged in the process of the committing the offence. Nice work, Shellharbour City Council!

If you are looking to train up new council workers or give senior managers an opportunity to brush up on their asbestos safety know-how, give us a buzz to discuss your training options today and save yourself a world of trouble tomorrow.