Thursday, 16 August 2012
Asbestos Management Review
by leave—On 14 March this year, in my first ministerial statement on workplace health and safety in this place, I said that every Australian who goes to work should return home safely. I know both sides of the House endorse this universal human right and today I reaffirm our commitment to this principle.
And, just as in the workplace, Australians of course deserve to be safe once they are at home too. Safety of our citizens is a fundamental role of government. But there is a clear and present danger to our workplace and domestic safety, and I speak of asbestos. The International Labour Organisation has reported that about every five minutes someone around the world dies of an asbestos related disease. Nearly 80 per cent of worldwide asbestos production between 1900 and 2004 has occurred since 1960—constituting somewhere between 143 million and 182 million tonnes. This is despite the fact that medical information about the hazards of asbestos was at a knowledge peak by this time half a century ago.
I have been hearing this all my life in the Labor movement, as I am sure many others of my colleagues have, the following words: 'what we could learn from, what we're going to do, what we're going to set up'. And, to be fair, much has been achieved, including various bans on asbestos. Much of the progress was achieved by the hard and continuing struggle by Australian trade unions. I would like to acknowledge the late Bernie Banton, my ministerial colleague Greg Combet and Senator Lisa Singh amongst a range of campaigners. It was an inevitable development of these strong and impassioned efforts that a Labor government, under my ministerial predecessor Senator Chris Evans, commissioned the Asbestos Management Review on 29 October 2010. I will come to the details of this review shortly.
The compelling reasons for commissioning the report, however, twist through our long workplace health and safety story as a tragic fibre in a deathly web. Asbestos was widely used throughout Australia for much of the 20th century. This nation had one of the highest rates of usage of asbestos during that period in public buildings and residential properties. As a consequence, today Australia has the highest reported per capita incidence of asbestos related disease in the world. More Australians will die of asbestos related diseases than were killed in the First World War. Due to extensive asbestos use throughout the country, and incubation periods of up to 50 years or more between exposure and the manifestation of disease, the sad reality is that Australians will continue to contract and die from asbestos related diseases for many years to come.
Despite the Australia-wide ban on the production, importation or use of asbestos or asbestos products that was introduced in 2003, asbestos can still be found in older public buildings and residences. This is usually in the form of asbestos cement (fibro) walls, both internal and external, corrugated roofing and pipes and many other products such as vinyl floor tiles, lagging on pipes and insulation in wood heaters. It would surprise many people just how widely used asbestos has been. In addition to walls and corrugated roofing, asbestos can be present in fire blankets and curtains; pipes and tubes; shingles or tiles; asbestos tape and rope; putties, adhesives and sealants; textured paints and coatings; brake pads and clutch facings; and even in the material that lines pot plants.
Even though the mining and industrial use of asbestos has all but been banished from Australia, asbestos can potentially appear across almost all of our daily activities. Asbestos remains one of the most serious issues in our workplaces. But it is increasingly clear that it is much more than this. In 2010, 642 people died of mesothelioma, perhaps the most insidious form of asbestos related disease. This equates to over 45 per cent—almost half—of the national road toll in 2010, which was 1,352 deaths.
Mesothelioma has a latency period of between 20 and 50 or more years after exposure, meaning that workers exposed to asbestos a generation ago might still contract the disease, which is almost always fatal and for which there is no cure. The average life expectancy of a person diagnosed with this deadly disease is between 10 and 12 months. More than 650 Australians are diagnosed with mesothelioma most years, and experts predict that this rate will not taper off until 2022. This means that, as a country, we face another 10 years of increasing asbestos deaths before we begin to see the numbers start to reduce, and many more years until those diseases no longer kill large numbers of Australians.
Sadly for those Australians who have been exposed to asbestos, in whatever setting, there is nothing that can be done to turn back time and protect them from asbestos exposure. But this government is committed to protecting the health of Australians who might still yet be exposed to asbestos unless actions are taken immediately.
There are huge amount of asbestos in the built environment, and the greatest risk to Australians is the risk of exposure to home renovators, tradespeople, demolition workers and people who are living in homes that are being renovated. Every weekend around our great country, thousands of Australians undertake projects to enhance and improve their No. 1 investment—their castle, their home. But the hidden truth is that this can also pose a serious danger to their health. Amid the obvious DIY dangers of power tools, ladders and hammers hitting thumbs lurks asbestos, that malevolent building material so widely used in Australia until the 1990s and not fully banned until 2003. Asbestos poses a danger in our own homes, so we must take care.
An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Australians will be diagnosed with asbestos related disease over the next 20 years, and researchers, policymakers and we in the Gillard government fear the third wave of asbestos deaths from people exposed in the home. This third wave includes men and women who have already built, renovated or demolished a house, garage or fence containing asbestos; those wives who have innocently washed asbestos laden clothes; and those children who watched their dad fix or take down the old fibro shed and many years later may have an asbestos fibre lurking in their lungs.
About a third of homes built between 1945 and the late 1980s contain some asbestos products—in walls, ceilings, eaves, kitchens, bathrooms, vinyl floor tiles, sheds and garages. In late June in Melbourne, I joined with hosts from the television renovation show The Block and the major hardware retailer Mitre 10 to help raise awareness for DIY renovators about the dangers of asbestos. We launched a new brochure called 'Identifying Asbestos in your Home', a pamphlet specifically designed to help alert DIY renovators where asbestos might be found in homes and what it may look like. It has been adapted from a book by Brian Sketcher, from Asbestos Audits Queensland, and funded through the federal government's Asbestos Innovation Fund. The Asbestos Innovation Fund is designed to develop practical programs to raise awareness of asbestos and improve its management and removal.
We know that Australians love getting in and having a go—renovating and fixing things around the home is one of our great national pastimes. But we all do need to take care not to expose ourselves and our families and children to asbestos. All home renovators should get advice before renovating. Just as we are encouraged to 'dial before we dig', I would urge everyone to take their time to ensure the appropriate steps are taken to protect themselves and their families. If anyone has any doubt at all, there are qualified asbestos removalists in every state and territory. Home renovation is a national passion and preoccupation in Australia, but we do need to protect ourselves and those we love from accidental exposure to this silent killer. It is important to recognise that, far away from the family home, asbestos exposure is also possible through asbestos tailings, old mines and mills, landfill and illegally dumped asbestos.
The Asbestos Management Review
It is for all of these reasons that this Labor government prioritised the need for an asbestos management review, the report and findings of which we release today. This review was tasked with making recommendations for the development of a national strategic plan to improve asbestos awareness and management and was undertaken over the past 18 months. It has been headed by Geoff Fary who was assisted by an advisory group comprised of experts across a range of professions. The members of the advisory group were:
I thank each of these people for their important contribution. In addition I would like to acknowledge Dr Daniel Mulino in my office, and Dr Yossi Berger of the Australian Workers' Union, each of whom have helped guide my thinking on these matters.
While different levels of government have individually and at times together agreed on asbestos related measures, the sad truth is that until this review commissioned by the Gillard government Australia has never genuinely contemplated a comprehensive national strategy to manage asbestos and raise awareness about it.
Understanding the review
At the rudimentary 'do not miss this point' level, the review confirms that action must result in a substantial increase in the number of people breathing less asbestos fibres. Despite all the hopeful discussions about durations of exposure or exposure levels, more asbestos fibres resident in the lungs is never better than less. Cladding, encapsulation and supervision of such materials have in the past condemned some people to inhaling more not less asbestos fibres. And some of them too will be killed by such exposure.
As a union organiser I remember anxious workers asking me if the small amount of asbestos fibres they had inhaled was likely to kill them. 'Probably not,' I told them, 'probably not.' That's the best I could tell them—'probably not'. I knew at the time that there is no known minimum safe level for asbestos fibres. Show me the scientist who is prepared to say which small group of asbestos fibres I am inhaling now is the one that will not harm me.
The New York medical researcher Dr Irving J. Selikoff, renowned for his life's work on asbestos, concluded that the asbestos catastrophe resulted in part from human failure to anticipate its scale. The situation he described in a paper published after his death refers to the industrial nations where asbestos companies and their insurers have had to bear substantial financial responsibility for the toll of asbestos disease. Dr Selikoff observed: 'The asbestos disaster did not result from superficial miscalculations. Rather, it resulted from very careful calculations, many of which were wrong. They were made not only by scientists but by individuals who were skilled in making estimates (e.g., auditors and actuaries for insurance companies that provided policies to companies making asbestos products). They were wrong in their predictions and are now liable for huge sums of money. These are troubling reflections, particularly when we remember that "statistics are human beings with the tears wiped away."'
The toll in human suffering is increased where the responsible parties escape, with impunity, liability for the tragic human consequences of their actions. This is the case still in countries where they still have thriving asbestos industries.
For the benefit of the House let me walk members through some of the key recommendations arising from the report. The review recommends:
The report also recommends that:
When we announced the review nearly two years ago, Professor Bruce Robinson, the director of the National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases, said he believed the national review was a major step forward. To quote Professor Robinson:
… a successful strategy involves more than just one ministry, one area. It needs the best people in the country to put their minds together to work out how to stop people being exposed in the future …
With this review we have brought good people together. And we shall listen to them with forensic passion.
Those who have suffered and died from mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases had lives with unfulfilled potential—from community sports stars, to fitters and turners, to country town chippies, to mums and dads. But we will never know what they might have achieved because they are lost to us. And we will lose more of them to this implacable grim reaper, just as their wives and husbands, sons and daughters, workmates and cousins, mothers and fathers will lose them. So we must act, to protect.
The full report will be available online shortly, and I table the recommendations with this statement. Be assured this government will consider the recommendations carefully and speedily. This report demonstrates how critical and urgent the issue is. It is an issue for all levels of government. It is an issue affecting people at work, in schools, in hospitals and at home. I am going to consult with all jurisdictions and all of the groups that have campaigned for action on asbestos to develop a quick response to the review.
This is a once in a generation report. I expect that the changes that come from our response to it will be substantial. Many lives are counting on it. I thank the House. I present the copy of the ministerial statement.
I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Farrer to speak for 17 minutes.
That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent Ms Ley speaking for a period not exceeding 17 minutes.
Question agreed to.
I thank the minister for bringing the review and his initial response to the parliament this morning. All members of the House support the need to ensure that when a mum or dad waves goodbye to their children in the morning they come home from work safely to still be there in the afternoon. As the mother of a newly graduated electrician who spends a large part of his days crawling through roofs and therefore encountering asbestos on a daily basis, I like many other Australians have worried about this issue. I have sought reassurance that the best possible workplace practices are there for my son in his workplace.
We in Australia have the highest reported per capita incidence of asbestos related disease in the world. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be 13,000 cases of mesothelioma in Australia. A further 40,000 Australians will contract asbestos related cancer. Mesothelioma and asbestos related cancer are different in the way that they affect families. These cancers do not affect you today or tomorrow but in 10, 20 or 30 years or even longer after exposure.
As a local member in a large rural electorate in western New South Wales, there are many communities with old houses and people on low and fixed incomes, people who you would say are on the fringes of society. Over the years I have seen and heard of too many who have passed away because of exposure to asbestos. These are the stories that not only cripple the families and friends but impact entire communities. While Australia has had a nationwide ban on the production, importation and use of asbestos since 2003, many buildings in Australia still have asbestos or asbestos products within them which put at risk in particular do-it-yourself home builders and renovators.
This review and its response arguably deal with the conventional, but we may need to broaden our response to a whole-of-government one. Thousands of cheap Chinese cars are coming into this country with asbestos in their exhaust gaskets. The authorities are grappling with the realities of what a recall would involve, because in the case of an exhaust gasket you may never need to touch it, but if you decide you have to remove it the gasket could perhaps break down and you would have to scrape it out of the exhaust. That is where the problem arises. You may in fact be creating a problem by issuing a recall. This highlights the complexity of what we are dealing with.
The coalition supported the establishment of the asbestos management review in 2010 and we support action to stop the continued exposure of Australians to asbestos. We have not had the opportunity to examine this review in detail. However, on the face of it, most if not all of the recommendations seem reasonable and we are of course prepared to work with the government to advance this to the next stage. I do agree with the minister that this is a critical and urgent issue that requires all tiers of government to work together to provide a positive outcome.
I urge the minister to broaden his consultation on how the strategy is implemented. The government needs to involve the builders, the tradesmen and the small business contractors—the people who are working at the sharp end. I ask the minister to expand the consultation to these practitioners who are working at the coalface, the people who contend with the health concerns, the physical realities and the cost of the potential removal and amelioration of asbestos hazards on a day-to-day basis. As yet in this broad, high-level strategy we have not heard their voices and we do need to seek their advice.
I note the minister's comment on the recommendation that, as part of the Australian government leading all jurisdictions to develop a national plan for asbestos management, a new national agency be created to have the responsibility for implementing such a plan. The coalition will not stand in the way of sound public policy initiatives issuing from this parliament to reduce the scourge of asbestos. But I make the point that since Labor came to office in 2007 we have had so many new national partnerships, national approaches, national agencies and new bureaucracies and I am not convinced that they always achieve what they set out to do, although they are very good at spending public money here in Canberra. Perhaps the actions that we need to take could be taken within existing structures at state level, allowing the funds to flow to communities, to awareness raising and to the actual task of identifying asbestos related risks.
In conclusion, may I say that we do believe it is important to address this in a bipartisan manner so that we can ensure that Australians are not struck down by this disease and can live to see not just their children grow up but their grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren. I appreciate the minister's swift action in returning, I understand, to the House within not too many more weeks with the next stage of the process.