Workers’ exposure to asbestos at Sydney Opera House highlights need to shift focus from managing to removing asbestos

After 25 workers on a building project at the Sydney Opera House were unacceptably exposed to asbestos for over a week, the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency has called for an urgent national program of removal of high risk asbestos.

The Agency’s CEO Peter Tighe said while there were regulations in place to manage asbestos in buildings and avoid risk to human health, the management regime clearly failed on this and other occasions to protect people from harmful exposure.

“There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos. It is unacceptable that 25 workers were exposed for a week before authorities were informed and steps put in place to protect the workers.

“The regulations to protect people working in buildings require an asbestos register, a management plan, appraisal of areas where asbestos is identified, and removal of high risk asbestos before workers go in.

“There is clearly a breakdown of the system and it has failed in the duty of care for workers at the Sydney Opera House this week. Next week, it will be somewhere else.

“Our concern is that with the levels of asbestos present in Australian buildings, we will continue to see instances where workers and home renovators are exposed.

“We really need to move from management of asbestos to a proactive program of removing high risk asbestos from Australian buildings.

“We need to instigate removal programs right across the board – from homes and both Government and privately owned buildings.

“A study we commissioned projected that mesothelioma rates from exposure through home renovation and workers in the building industry have not yet peaked.

“The time is up for asbestos in Australia. All levels of Government and the community must face the challenge of removal of asbestos from our built environment.”