Call for tighter rules on asbestos

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 13:19 27/05/2013

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The Rebuild

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The Government's contract with Fletchers for Christchurch's rebuild should be reviewed following revelations workers were exposed to asbestos-contaminated material, the Council of Trade Unions says.

Union president Helen Kelly called for the contract between the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and Fletchers to be reviewed to ensure stiff penalties were enforced for serious health and safety breaches.

The call comes after The Press reported a young plasterer, standing on a ladder and wearing no protective gear, used a paint scraper to unknowingly remove material riddled with asbestos from a textured ceiling in Cashmere, while a government department questioned why it was not told.

The companies involved both claim to have acted within safety protocols, but the incident has unveiled a worrying loophole in which tradespeople are being sent into earthquake-damaged homes to work with potentially contaminated material before it is tested.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is now calling for all employers to test for asbestos before sending workers on-site and said it would be making "preliminary inquiries" into the Cashmere incident.

Kelly said Fletchers seemed unaware of a requirement to report sites with asbestos present to the MBIE, while a report that two workers were called to a disciplinary meeting after raising safety concerns with their employer was a "grave concern".

The Government, both through EQC and directly, needed to "step up" and demand improved standards from those it employed to manage Christchurch's rebuild, including Fletchers, she said.

"It knows much of the work will be contracted out by these principals but must include in the contract that this is done safety and must impose penalties when this is not done.  
"It is useless to have one of its departments expressing concerns about it while another is ultimately responsible for the breach."

Kelly said the public had lost confidence in New Zealand's handling of workplace health and safety, and she feared there was "likely hundreds" of other asbestos incidents unreported.

Exterior building firm Goleman, which is at the centre of a government investigation into the handling of asbestos-contaminated material at Christchurch Hospital, was the contractor appointed to manage the Cashmere job on behalf of Fletcher EQR.

Former Goleman employee Evan Hyett, 52, witnessed a young plasterer scraping ceiling material containing friable asbestos while wearing no protective gear at the site last October.

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"He had it in his eyes, in his mouth and all over his face," Hyett said.

Goleman general manager Luke Goleman said employees raised concerns and a sample of the material was tested and came back as positive for white asbestos.

Work on the site halted immediately and Fletchers was informed, he said.

"The issue was dealt with in full accordance with Fletcher EQR's health and safety guidelines."

Goleman did not tell the ministry because it was a subcontractor to Fletchers, he said.

A Fletchers spokesman said testing showed asbestos was present in the building material but not on the workers' clothing or equipment.

The ministry was not informed because "there is no compulsory requirement for the company(ies) involved to notify MBIE".

However, MBIE Canterbury Rebuild health and safety programme director Kathryn Heiler said the ministry should have been told "when the employer became aware that asbestos may have been present in the workplace".

Under the 1998 Asbestos Regulations, the handling, demolition or maintenance of any part of a building containing friable asbestos requires notification to MBIE.

"This situation highlights the need for employers and employees to be aware that repair, maintenance and building work being done in Canterbury may contain asbestos. Hazards should be identified and appropriate controls put in place before any work commences to ensure it is undertaken safely."

The emphasis should be on identifying asbestos before the work begins, Heiler said.

Fletchers health and safety protocol states all damaged properties suspected of containing asbestos, or built between 1940 and 1990, require mandatory testing.

The tests could be ordered by a Fletchers contract supervisor or the site contractor, a Fletchers spokesman said.

Fletchers was aware of previous incidents where asbestos was found after work had begun on homes and the spokesman was not sure at what point asbestos tests were expected to be conducted.

Canterbury District Health Board medical officer of health Dr Ramon Pink said the health risks of dealing with white asbestos mostly centred on the long-term exposure to future homeowners, rather than the short-term exposure to tradespeople. Prolonged, chronic exposure can cause lung diseases, including cancer.

Pink supported the Government's calls to test potentially contaminated material prior to workers being sent in.

"If the risk of exposure is there, then we need to minimise it . . . it cannot be a retrospective thing." 

WORKERS RESIGN OVER ASBESTOS SCARE

Contractors who raised the alarm over potentially exposing patients to asbestos at Christchurch Hospital are taking their employer to court for negligence.

Exterior building firm Goleman was last week informed another two of its employees had quit over the asbestos saga and that they would be pursuing a personal grievance over the company's alleged health-and-safety breach.

The contractors were exposed to white asbestos while working on the roof of the hospital's earthquake-damaged Parkside building in early April and raised public concerns over the way Goleman allegedly failed to warn its staff and put patients at risk to the hazardous material.

The Press published the employees' concerns early this month.

Two days after the story ran, industrial abseilers Liam Milner, 24, and Neil Silcock, 27, were summoned to a disciplinary meeting with Goleman for breaching their contracts by talking to the media.

The meeting was held earlier this month and Milner and Silcock attended along with their lawyer, David Beck.

They received no disciplinary action.

Beck, of SB Law, wrote a letter to Goleman last week informing it that both Milner and Silcock were resigning and pursuing a constructive dismissal case against the firm.

"They have decided to resign on the basis that they do not believe their employer can guarantee their health and safety," Beck said.

The pair will be seeking distress damages for a loss of wages and good references for future employment.

Goleman manager Luke Goleman said he could not comment as the incident was under investigation by the Government.

Test results confirming the presence of asbestos on the hospital work site were obtained by the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) on April 2 and Goleman was advised to stop work immediately.

The four contractors maintain they were not told about the risk and continued to wander through the hospital unknowingly wearing potentially contaminated material until Fletcher EQR shut the site down eight days later.

- The Press

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