Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in rock, sediment or soil, and it has a long-history of human-use. In fact, there is archaeological evidence that asbestos fibres were used for wicks in candles and lamps as early as 4000 B.C. Asbestos mining in Australia began in the 1880s and asbestos-containing products remain in Australian homes and workplaces. For instance, asbestos can be found in fibrous cement sheeting (fibro), flue pipes, drains, roofs (including insulation), gutters and car parts. A total ban on asbestos came into effect in Australia on 31 December 2003 and it is now illegal to produce products containing asbestos or import it from another country.
The ban on asbestos arose because of the significant health risks it poses. When its fibres are inhaled, they can cause asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers. Apart from the United Kingdom, Australia has the second-highest mesothelioma death rate in the world. Since 2011, an average of 701 people have been diagnosed with the disease each year. In fact, since the 1980s, more than 10,000 people have died from mesothelioma, and an additional 25,000 people are expected to die from it over the next four decades.
In 2015, there were 4,152 deaths from asbestos-related diseases, and 87% of these were men with the majority over 65 years of age. Those most at risk from contracting an asbestos-related disease are asbestos miners, followed by asbestos product manufacturers, and tradespeople exposed to asbestos-containing materials (e.g. carpenters, plumbers, electricians). Home renovators that come into contact with asbestos fibres are also vulnerable. The risk of contracting an asbestos-related disease increases with the amount of exposure (number of fibres inhaled), and the risk of contracting asbestos-related lung cancer increases for smokers. Given that asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, have a latency period of 20 to 40 years, suffers may not be aware that they have contracted an illness until they are in middle-age.
Workplaces are required by law to protect workers from asbestos exposure, and managers or workplace leaders have a responsibility to protect anyone that works with asbestos. Importantly, workers must never handle asbestos unless they hold a current license appropriate for the type of work being undertaken. Workers should also not use high-pressure cleaners, brooms, compressed air, or any other machinery on or near asbestos that might release fibres.
Managers or those in charge of health and safety in a workplace in which asbestos has been identified must:
- Label all asbestos where possible
- Assess the risks of exposure to airborne fibres
- Have control measures that eliminate or minimise risks
- Have an asbestos register
- Have an asbestos management plan
- Review control measures and management plans to ensure they are effective
- Hold the right training and licensing
- Monitor workers’ health
If the building in which work is being conducted was constructed before 31st December 2003, if asbestos has been identified in the workplace, or if asbestos is likely to be in the workplace from time-to-time, an asbestos register must be created. The register must:
- Record identified asbestos or asbestos assumed to be present at the workplace
- Record the date when the asbestos was identified
- Record the location, type and condition of the asbestos
- Be maintained to ensure information is up-to-date
- Be given to a person conducting a business or undertaking when there is a change of management or controller of the workplace.
- Be available to workers
Workplaces containing asbestos must also have a management plan that:
- Contains information about the location of the asbestos
- Outlines decisions about the management of asbestos (e.g. safe work procedures)
- Describes procedures for responding to incidents and emergencies involving asbestos
- Is up-to-date and reviewed every 5 years (or when there is a change in circumstance)
- Provides information about consultation and training responsibilities
- Must be accessible to any worker
Removal of Asbestos
Asbestos removal must only be undertaken by someone who is appropriately trained and holds the relevant licence. Licences are administered by Commonwealth, state and territory work health and safety regulators. In NSW, these licences are administered by SafeWork NSW.
Organisations and business must provide and pay for health monitoring for all those who work with, or have been exposed to asbestos. Worker health must be monitored by a medical practitioner throughout the period in which they are removing or working with asbestos and all health records must be kept for 40 years. The worker must receive a copy of the report, and any changes to a worker’s health must be monitored by a medical practitioner.
Between 2010-2015, 176 Australians received compensation payouts for asbestos-related disease or exposure, totalling $85 million in payments. The highest rates of compensation claims were from carpenters and joiners, electricians, freight handlers, metal fitters and machinists, and construction and plumbers’ assistants.
There are two ways in which compensation for asbestos-exposure can be claimed:
- Through workers’ compensation or another government compensation scheme – a ‘no-fault’ statutory claim in which injured workers can make a claim regardless of who is at fault.
- Through the court, known – a common law claim in which the injured worker is required to prove negligence against the party to receive damages.
While each state and territory has its own workers’ compensation scheme, most compensation claims for asbestos-exposure are pursued through the court. This is because self-employed workers are not covered by workers’ compensation, exposure may have occurred in a non-workplace setting or across multiple workplaces, or because payouts are larger than when pursued through a government compensation scheme.
If you have been exposed to asbestos, it is essential that you seek legal advice. A highly-experienced compensation lawyer can establish whether your workplace has failed in its duty-of-care by not setting-up or maintaining systems and procedures to protect you. A lawyer can advise on the best course of action to ensure that you receive the compensation that you deserve.
Learn More about compensation for asbestos, dust and toxic chemical exposure.