Even when a workplace has been properly checked for asbestos in the building framework and existing material on site, contamination can still occur through the introduction of foreign substances.

While Australia imposed a nation-wide ban on asbestos in the workplace on December 31, 2003, some countries – including China, Brazil, Russia and Canada – still mine asbestos and use this dangerous material in many industries.

China is the world's leading asbestos consumer, using more than 600,000 metric tonnes of asbestos every year, according to international asbestos organisation The Mesothelioma Center.

The second largest consumer across the globe is India, with the rate of consumption climbing rapidly over recent years. The Indian government recently announced the country's asbestos use had risen by 83 per cent between 2004 and 2013.

Because of this widely accepted use of asbestos, it is possible for Australian companies to unknowingly import materials containing asbestos fibres.

It is therefore important for employers to put measures in place to minimise the risk of asbestos contamination, including offering staff asbestos awareness training to ensure employees can safely identify and respond to the threat of asbestos.

Asbestos contamination on Australian shores

This risk was realised recently by the operator of the Australia-Pacific liquid natural gas (LNG) project. The company was forced to suspend drilling on 12 rig sites across the coal seam gas sites in south west central Queensland after notification was received of a possible asbestos contamination.

One of the organisation's drilling fluid suppliers discovered that a product it had imported and supplied to the LNG sites may have been contaminated with asbestos materials.

"When notified by {the supplier} of the potential of affected material, {the operator} took immediate precautionary action to safeguard our employees, contractors and landholders," the company's official March 13 statement explained.

This action included halting all drilling across the Queensland sites as investigations began. All potentially affected fluid has now been identified and accounted for. This includes all material under the company's control throughout the supply chain "from storage warehouse to site".

Licenced and trained asbestos removal teams are now in the process of removing the material from each location and safe disposal of the product is underway.

"In the interim, an alternative product has been sourced," the company said.

Additionally, the supplier has undertaken investigations into its own supply chain with the hope of identifying the source of the contamination. Once the point of introduction has been discovered, it is likely that this organisation will be able to modify their operations to avoid further imports of contaminated substances.

"Our highest priority remains the health and safety of everyone associated with the project. Specialist support is being provided to those who may have been exposed to the drilling fluid additives and a specialist hotline has been established," the operator said.

Responding to an asbestos contamination

If you or one of your employees has identified the risk of an asbestos contamination in your workplace, it is essential that you follow correct asbestos removal procedures. Even when the presence of asbestos is uncertain, it is best practice to assume contamination has occurred.

This means that employers dealing with a potential asbestos introduction through imported materials should consider enlisting the services of a trained professional to safely remove and dispose of any contaminated material even if official testing has not taken place.

It can be difficult to tell whether a material contains asbestos simply by looking at it, and if imported materials have arrived from a country that allows the use of asbestos, the products may not be labelled with a warning. Employers unsure about the presence of asbestos are encouraged to give a sample to a licenced specialist to analyse the asbestos content.

When asbestos has been assumed or confirmed in a workplace, the employer or business owner is required to alert the relevant authorities and regulatory bodies.

From there, it is important for a licenced and trained professional to safely dispose of the contaminated material. This involves placing all affected substances in airtight containers, labelling all hazardous material and transporting the asbestos-contaminated substances in a manner that follows state or territory Environment Protection Authority (EPA) requirements.

If you or someone in your workforce has completed a comprehensive asbestos removal course, it may be possible for the issue to be taken care of independently. However, it is essential to follow the restrictions of the training received.

For example, a company that has received a Class B qualification will be unable to safely remove and dispose of any friable asbestos. It is therefore recommended that you invest in a Class A training package to enable the legal removal of all types of asbestos. 

If you would like to undertake an asbestos removal course, or wish to invest in asbestos awareness training for your staff, get in touch with AlertForce today.