As 2017 draws to a close, it’s troubling to think that in the last week in NSW alone, there have been two serious incidents involving possible asbestos exposure.

Residents in the Sydney suburb of Chester Hill woke one morning this week to find almost 10tonnes of construction debris dumped in a local street. There was no explanation for the dumping and testing of the material is still being conducted.

SafeWork NSW have also issued a very stern warning to the Blue Mountains City Council this week about buildings in their care that contain asbestos and are accessed by the general public including a child-care centre.

SafeWork NSW have launched a full investigation into the asbestos management practices at the council and the NSW Minister for Better Regulation Matt Kean issued a statement saying the investigation came about after SafeWork NSW was contacted about alleged asbestos mismanagement at several council-managed workplaces in the region.

Kean said he’d directed SafeWork inspectors to conduct a full and thorough investigation into these disturbing allegations adding this is a very significant step but it’s absolutely warranted as the number of asbestos discoveries in the mountains, and council’s poor asbestos management, are alarming.

To date SafeWork inspectors have issued Blue Mountains City Council with notices in relation to asbestos discovered in:

  • a council-owned building operating as a pre-school at Wentworth Falls
  • large waste piles at the council depots at Lawson and Katoomba
  • buildings at Springwood council depot
  • leaf litter at the rear of the yard at a council-owned building operating as a pre-school in Katoomba
  • Lawson Library ceiling
  • the ceilings and walls at Warrimoo Citizens’ Hall; and
  • the fireplace at Heatherbrae Cottage at Lawson.

In July this year, a council spokesperson told local newspaper, the Blue Mountains Gazette that in response to notifications of Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) on a worksite and community buildings, Council acted in a timely, open and appropriate manner to the satisfaction of SafeWork NSW and council’s independent expert consultant.

A council spokesperson said the classification of ‘high risk’ by the consultant does not suggest there is clear and present danger at these locations.

“Rather the classification is applied to those locations at which a risk of exposure would be considered high in the event of ACM being disrupted. As the ACM is being managed appropriately at these sites this is not the case.”

The council went on to say the safety, health and wellbeing of community and employees was paramount and they take asbestos management seriously.

So who is responsible and what role do they have when it comes to asbestos removal and management?

According to SafeWork NSW’s Asbestos Blueprint: A guide to roles and responsibilities for operational staff of state and local government, published in 2011, there are very defined roles for SafeWork NSW, emergency service teams and local government.

For SafeWork NSW this involves liaising with Fair Trading NSW and the Australian Consumer and Competition Authority (ACCC) regarding the recall of asbestos products as well as Australian Customs and Border Protection Services on the import and export of asbestos materials. Safework NSW also conduct investigations into asbestos management of a person conducting a business or undertaking at a place of work whether for gain or profit under the OHS Act as well as Licensed asbestos removal work under OHS Act 9.

In the case of Emergency Services Organisations they will respond to emergency incidents where asbestos may be present, and will determine the extent of asbestos contamination arising from the emergency in liaison with Fire and Rescue NSW (HAZMAT).  They will also provide communication about asbestos contamination information to other organisation attending the site, including the recovery committee, local council or property owners at time of handover. It is also the responsibility of the ESO when they have responded to an incident and identified asbestos to advise local council and the Environment and Protection Authority. They must also regulate the disposal of asbestos under the Protection of the Environment Operations (POEO) Act. 2.

Local Councils are responsible for the management of asbestos in residential premises (excluding oversight of removal work), and the management of the removal from domestic premises of non-licensable quantities and work not involving a business or undertaking. It is their responsibility to record existing asbestos site contamination on section 149 certificates & local government asbestos registers. They must also manage the illegal dumping and orphaned asbestos waste (excluding oversight of removal work), and provide the correct recovery operations following an emergency situation, if a site is handed over to the Council or local residents by an emergency service organisation (excluding oversight of removal/remediation work).

There is a duty of care when it comes to the management of asbestos particularly with its removal and disposal. Australia was, until recently, one of the largest users of the product in the construction of commercial and residential buildings and contamination from asbestos is a public health issue that governments at all levels take very seriously.

It is worth looking at SafeWork websites in your state or territory for further information on what your role is when it comes to asbestos management.

AlertForce is a recognised RTO and offers Class A, Class B, Supervisor and Assessor asbestos removal courses in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth. Check our website for other states and territories. For more information visit: https://alertforce.com.au/ohs-training-courses/asbestos-awareness/