Asbestos removal company fined $85,000 for safety breaches
Demolition and asbestos removal company Nu Tech Demolition & Asbestos Removal Pty Ltd has been convicted and fined $64,500 in two prosecutions for working from height and asbestos removal safety breaches. The company pleaded guilty to one charge of failing to reduce the risk of a fall from height so far as was reasonably practicable and another charge of failing to ensure that the workplace was safe and without risks to health. The company was sentenced to pay fines of $39,000 and ordered to pay costs of $16,641. In a separate prosecution, the company was fined $25,500 and ordered to pay $3999 in costs after asbestos fibres were found at a residential site in Watsonia North in May 2021.
The company pleaded guilty to one charge of failing to eliminate or reduce the exposure of airborne asbestos fibres and a second charge of failing to produce documents prior to an inspection. WorkSafe Victoria attended the site after a member of the public reported possible asbestos fibres coming from cement sheeting and debris being loaded into a skip bin by an excavator.
Work was directed to cease immediately, with police called to the workplace to block workers from attempting to use a truck to remove the loaded skip. Shortly after WorkSafe had issued a non-disturbance notice and secured the site with temporary fencing, workers returned, ripped the fencing gate open and removed the truck and skip. Police were unable to locate the truck and skip but samples collected onsite by a hygienist later tested positive for both friable and non-friable asbestos. The company subsequently failed to respond to a WorkSafe notice to produce numerous documents.
In February 2020, a WorkSafe inspector visited a multi-storey demolition site in Parkville after an anonymous report and observed four workers working at height without harnesses or other fall protection. WorkSafe attended another Nu Tech demolition site in Brunswick East in March 2020 where four workers were observed working near unprotected edges at heights of up to 10 metres. A Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) produced by the company did not include control measures to address the risk of a fall from height.
During a follow-up visit, a worker was seen standing on an excavator bucket three metres above the ground. A Nu Tech manager told inspectors that spare scaffolding and an elevated work platform available onsite were not used as it was a “five-minute job”. Two other workers were observed on a mobile scaffold with inadequate hand rails. The company reportedly failed to reduce the risk of serious injury or death to the workers from a fall of more than two metres by ensuring anchored harnesses were worn or passive fall prevention, such as perimeter guardrails and scaffolding, was installed.
Nu Tech also failed to reduce the risk of a fall from the incomplete mobile scaffold by ensuring that complete guardrails were in place and that an SWMS was prepared. WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety Narelle Beer warned employers of the consequences of not taking falls from height and asbestos risks seriously. Beer said that the inhalation of asbestos fibres can lead to severe and sometimes deadly diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
“Falls are one of the biggest killers in Victorian workplaces and a lax attitude towards working at height, as we saw this in case, is a serious risk to safety. It’s extremely shameful that this company not only put workers and the public at risk of asbestos exposure, but also refused to cooperate with WorkSafe throughout the process,” Beer said.
To prevent falls from height, WorkSafe advises employers to consider if they can eliminate the risk by doing all or some of the work on the ground or from a solid construction. If that is not possible, they should use a passive fall prevention device (such as scaffolds, perimeter screens, guardrails, safety mesh or elevating work platforms), a positioning system (such as a travel-restraint system) or a fall arrest system (such as a catch platform or safety nets). A fixed or portable ladder could also be used, with employers advised to also consider implementing administrative controls.
When removing asbestos, employers are urged to remember that domestic premises become workplaces when a person or company has been engaged to carry out work. Asbestos removal work must be performed by an asbestos removal licence holder and/or their employees who are appropriately trained and instructed to perform the removal work safely. The unlicensed removal of limited amounts of asbestos is permitted in certain circumstances only.
Employers must also remember that asbestos removal work must comply with safety requirements, including the use of protective clothing and equipment, decontamination facilities, waste disposal procedures, employee medical examinations, the use of signs and barricades and the preparation of an asbestos control plan.
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