Fletcher investigated over asbestos

NICOLE MATHEWSON
Last updated 14:50 27/05/2014

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Fletcher Building says it has handled the risk of asbestos exposure ''responsibly and effectively'' during Christchurch's earthquake rebuild.

WorkSafe New Zealand has confirmed it investigated Fletcher Building in February over four cases involving asbestos exposure in Christchurch.

The cases involved home repair work carried out by Fletcher on behalf of the Earthquake Commission (EQC).

WorkSafe said all four investigations had since been completed and no charges were laid, but a fifth investigation had since been launched.

The latest case was the subject of an application to the courts and a hearing would be held on Friday, a spokesman said.

''WorkSafe NZ has applied to the court for an extension of time while it completes an investigation. No further comment will be made as the matter is before the court,'' he said. 

In a statement released this afternoon, Fletcher Building said it had managed the risk of asbestos exposure ''responsibly and effectively'' during its Canterbury Home Repair Programme (CHRP).

''The risk of asbestos exposure during the repair process was identified early in the CHRP, and independent contractors were required to arrange testing for all houses assessed as potentially containing asbestos,'' the company said.

''Where asbestos was found to be present, contractors were directed to undertake repairs in accordance with the New Zealand asbestos regulations.

''Further enhancements had been made to testing and repair practices and education initiatives as the repair programme progressed. 

''Fletcher Building remains fully committed to maintaining healthy and safe environments for residents, employees, contractors, and all others involved in its work,'' the statement said.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said ''everybody'' was taking the issue of asbestos exposure seriously. 

''Everybody wants to have good protocols in place to deal with this stuff. The reality is that no one dealing with this stuff put it there in the first place. They're having to deal with things that are a consequence of decisions made decades ago.''

Brownlee said the issue was not specific to Canterbury and there would be ''tens of thousands'' of homes across the country. 

Prime Minister John Key said he did not want people to ''panic or ... be overly concerned''. 

''We just need to understand exactly the issues here and how significant they are. But certainly WorkSafe NZ will take its responsibilities very seriously.''

Companies were not required to report cases of asbestos exposure to WorkSafe, but the agency received more than 70 complaints last year - a 350 per cent increase on the 16 cases reported in 2010. 

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Christchurch builder Gideon Couper said builders could have unwittingly been exposing themselves to asbestos ''for years'' before finding out just how many products contained the toxic material.

''It's probably too late for a lot of us older builders. We have to be careful from now on.''

He did not think it was necessary to change the law to ensure all instances of asbestos exposure were reported to WorkSafe though. 

''No one is going to wittingly expose their workers now; they'd be nuts to,'' Couper said.

''It's more a case of making the builders aware and the sub-traders. We just really need to know what we're doing.''

Council of Trade Unions policy director Bill Rosenberg said the Government had a ''moral obligation to take urgent action'' on asbestos issues, including monitoring those who had been exposed and compensating them if needed. 

- The Press

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