Asbestos (a fibrous crystalline mineral) was long used in brake blocks, linings, insulation and other ways in the rail industry. Railway workshops, for instance, were high-exposure workplaces due to the construction and reconditioning of rolling stock. Consequently the rail industry is one with a high number of exposed workers.
Australia was one of the world’s biggest per-capita users of asbestos, so there is still a large amount of asbestos in buildings and other infrastructure. Only from December 2003 was the use and importation of all forms of asbestos (almost completely) finally prohibited. As a consequence, we have one of the world's highest rates of mesothelioma though on the workers’ compensation statistics (admittedly a partial measure) it has peaked.
Mesothelioma (a cancer that affects the mesothelium of certain internal organs) and asbestosis (build up of scar tissue on the lungs that impedes expansion and contraction, with symptoms similar to asthma) of the lungs have a long latency period, typically resulting in death 20 to 30 years after the initial exposure. As far as is known, both arise only through exposure to asbestos.
In 1998, the International Programme on Chemical Safety issued the report 'Environmental Health Criteria 203 – Chrysotile Asbestos' which concluded:
1. All types of asbestos cause asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.
2. No safe threshold level of exposure has been identified.
3. Safer substitutes exist.
4. Exposure of workers and other users of asbestos containing products is extremely difficult to control.
5. Asbestos abatement is very costly and difficult to carry out in a completely safe way.
(acknowledgement to International Trade Union Conference on Asbestos, 2008)
Although the British epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll was not the first to identify smoking as a cause of lung cancer, it was his and his co-worker Hill’s initial findings in the case-control study reported in the 1950 British Medical Journal that brought the issue to public attention. He much later commented “That so many diseases—major and minor—should be related to smoking is one of the most remarkable medical research findings of the present century”. Using a similar method, in 1955 he demonstrated asbestos to be a cause of lung cancer. To quote The Australian Asbestos Network, “the industry tried to prevent publication of these results.”
In 2001 asbestos producer and user James Hardie attempted to separate itself from the liabilities created by its old asbestos businesses, by creating a Medical Research and Compensation Foundation (MRCF) that would bear all future asbestos liabilities, as well as moving all the other companies overseas plus corporate restructuring.
Due to complaints about MRCF underfunding. the NSW Government announced an Inquiry in December 2003 into the creation by James Hardie Industries of MRCF. It found that James Hardie established the MRCF to rid itself of it’s asbestos liabilities, that (with $273 million) the MRCF was massively under-funded, and that James Hardies’ actions and that of its CEO, Peter McDonald and CFO, Peter Schaffron, were in breach of the law. As a headline put it, "Company has never stopped lying, inquiry told".
James Hardie’s liability was estimated by Trowbridge Consulting at around $230 million in 1996. As at 2013, actual payments have exceeded $1 billion, with future liabilities now estimated at $1.7 billion.
Telstra, NBN and Asbestos
The Howard government’s determination to flog Telstra off saw them do everything they could do to maximise its sale price, including cutting maintenance and avoiding remediation of the many Telstra conduits and pits known to contain asbestos.
Contemporary management practice is now often completely contrary to the experienced and direct management that would once have been found in say the Midland Railway Workshops, or the Westrail track maintenance crews. Now, the managers controlling such as NBN Co delude themselves that by sub-, sub-sub-, and sub-sub-sub-contracting, they can assure good-quality work despite not having the necessary skills themselves (or even attending the site), yet distance themselves from problems by plausible deniability through blaming the subbies.
Such a model is in fact guaranteed to produce shoddy work, as well as guaranteed to attract publicity where any problem occurs that could not be concealed - mishandling asbestos being one. As it did.
Obviously the contracting model invites the use of s457 visa workers, they being the least trained, usually with poor English, the most vulnerable to employer pressure, and most poorly paid. In one instance in Tasmania, a supervisor was reportedly gesturing at a group of such workers to break up an asbestos-containing Telstra pit using sledgehammers, without wearing any meaningful protective equipment or following ant of the guidelines for asbestos removal.
Had the workforce been unionised, asbestos problems would have been dealt with within 48 hours of commencement. Management would have been forced to face the issue instead of creating another mound of problems by denial. A permanent, skilled and experienced workforce could also partially compensate for systemic management incompetence.
Note that substantive laws, avenues for claim, and time limits for commencing claims vary between states. Applicable law will be that of the State in which the claimant was exposed to asbestos.
Turner Freeman Lawyers’ views of asbestos disease and compensation entitlements in Western Australia can be found here
Australian Mesothelioma Registry website can be found here
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