Asbestos Awareness Week 2014

Asbestos Awareness Week 2014 November 24 - 28.

As we are aware, the reason the union movement and Asbestos Diseases Support and Advocacy groups allocate a week each year as 'Asbestos Awareness Week' is because, despite much work, asbestos is still a huge problem in Australia. Australia has an unenviable record of one of the world's highest rate of asbestos related diseases and a legacy of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) in many workplaces and buildings - public and private, commercial, domestic and industrial.

The week has been a very busy one not just in Victoria, but around the whole country. Two important events took place in Melbourne's CBD - the Asbestoswise Commemoration Ceremony on Wednesday and the launch of Bernie Banton Day at 'Stan's Van' in Federation Square on Thursday. 

Developments this week:

1 - Commitment to remove asbestos from Victorian public schools

This week Labor Opposition responded positively to demands from the Australian Education Union (AEU) for a better asbestos removal plan for Victorian public schools. Earlier in the week, The Age revealed that some of our schools are so contaminated that buildings need to be cordoned off or cleaned up immediately.  Of the 368 audits released, only 30 schools audited (8 per cent) were asbestos-free. The remaining 92 per cent contained asbestos, and of those schools, five were in the highest risk category (requiring immediate clean up); 72 were in the second-highest category (triggering restricted access and removal of the asbestos as soon as possible); and 255 schools were of medium risk (requiring enclosure or sealing the asbestos while removal plans are put in place).

The AEU has had a long-standing policy of removal of asbestos from schools - and had secured a commitment from the previous Labor government to begin the process - a commitment the current Liberal government refused to make. On November 26, Daniel Andrews, Labor Opposition leader, said that if elected, his government would set a goal for all Victorian government schools to be asbestos free by 2020. He committed to a $100 million plan to provide funding to conduct a full audit, remove immediate risks and accelerate the retirement of old portable classrooms. (Media Release).

Meredith Peace, AEU Branch president, said the commitment will ensure Victorian children and school staff will be able to learn and teach in a healthy and safe environment free from asbestos. "Labor's announcement today demonstrates that they are listening to parents, teachers, principals and support staff and committing to tackling the problem," said Ms Peace. "We welcome this commitment by the Labor Party, and believe they have given voters a real choice for putting education first in Saturday's election." (AEU Media Statement)

2 - Unions put James Hardie on notice

On the seventh anniversary of asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton's death from mesothelioma, ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver has announced unions will take legal action to block any application to the Supreme Court to have asbestos victims paid compensation in instalments. In a unanimous vote, the ACTU Executive committed to the action in response to a shortfall in the Asbestos Injuries Compensation Fund (AICF) set up to compensate asbestos sufferers.

Mr Oliver said the average mesothelioma victim dies within 155 days of diagnosis: "Asbestos victims do not die by instalments and should not be paid in instalments." ACTU Assistant Secretary, Mr Michael Borowick, was at Federation Square for the launch of Bernie Banton Day, and re-iterated the ACTU's commitment.

Background

All forms of asbestos were banned in Australia in 2003. This means that no form of asbestos can be mined, imported, exported, sold, used or re-used. However, because of the legacy of its use, there is still a huge problem of asbestos exposures for both workers and people in the general community.

Much has happened over the past few years:

  • in great part due to the work of a coalition of Australian unions, community, asbestos support and advocacy groups and the Cancer Council, which developed a National Declaration: Towards an Asbestos Free Australia (Read more) the previous Labor Federal government established the Asbestos Management Review. A report was provided to then IR Minister Shorten who first established an Office of Asbestos Safety, to begin work on a national asbestos strategy
  • Subsequently, the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) was established on 1 July 2013 to provide a national focus on asbestos issues which goes beyond workplace safety to encompass environmental and public health concerns.  The agency aims to ensure asbestos issues receive the attention and focus needed to drive change across all levels of government. 
  • While ASEA is making great progress, its future is currently at risk due to recommendations from the Coalition government's Committee of Audit recommendation to place the agency under the department.

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