Union program to fight asbestos

Wednesday, 18 June, 2008

The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) has organised what is claimed to be the largest asbestos survey and research program to ever be undertaken at a single work site in Australia.

As a result of the presence of asbestos building materials at the Cement Australia site at Railton, Tasmania — and because Goliath Cement (an earlier company on the same site) manufactured and distributed asbestos-containing materials between 1947 and 1986 — an extensive survey and research program, together with an accelerated removal program, has been developed by the AWU and Cement Australia.

“This all began when we started working towards the removal of the asbestos from the site two years ago,” said AWU Tasmanian branch secretary, Ian Wakefield. “While undertaking the removal, we identified a wider concern for not just present and past employees of the site, but for the community.

“To fully address this concern, we felt it was necessary to work with Cement Australia to undertake crucial research into asbestos and its relationship with this community.”

For the first time in such a study in Australia, a professional OHS historian has been appointed to this OHS initiative. Dr Berri Penrose will research the history of Goliath Cement, particularly in its 'asbestos phase', and all the relevant aspects that may have a bearing on the larger survey and/or health and safety of workers.

“It is good that a historian has been included on a research team. Scientific studies tend to examine slices of life. An historical overview can put those slices into a continuum of human activity. Essentially, it's a bit like going from a series of still lives to a movie,” said Dr Penrose.

The history and action of the company and the role and actions of the regulator, mining inspectors and parliament will all be considered.

It has already been revealed that the company imported raw asbestos fibres from Wittenoom, Australia, Canada and Zimbabwe where they owned an asbestos mine. These products have resulted in many tragedies.

The research will be conducted by some of Australia's most experienced researchers in the area (from three Australian universities) led by Prof Malcolm Sim, director, Monash (University) Centre for Occupational & Environmental Health.

The research aims to evaluate the level of asbestos-related disease in current workers, retired workers and members of the local community. It will attempt to assess the total number of people in each group yet to be affected by asbestos-related disease as time passes. This will allow an assessment of the risk involved to those who worked at Goliath Cement and/or lived nearby. All workers, ex-workers and local residents will be invited to participate.

Most of the asbestos-containing materials present in current buildings at the site have been removed; however, an accelerated removal program will commence under the supervision of a leading occupational hygiene group, which has extensive experience in this area.

“The AWU Tasmanian branch has been instrumental in triggering, developing and constructing this program with total support from the current management of Cement Australia,” said AWU national OHS director, Dr Yossi Berger. “We call on both the state and federal governments to use this opportunity to help in tackling this menace of asbestos products which, by the time they're no longer used or present around the world, will have killed millions of people.”


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