Unions have campaigned for decades about the dangers of asbestos and have successfully banned it from Australia and helped secure long term compensation for people affected by asbestos-related disease.

Australia had the highest per capita use of asbestos in the world from the 1950s until the 1980s.  About every third domestic dwelling built between 1945 and 1987 (when manufacture of asbestos products in Australia ceased) is thought to contain asbestos.

Australia’s union members have been hit hard by the asbestos epidemic. Many have lost their lives through their exposure in the workplace. Miners of asbestos have been badly affected but also many other tradespeople, workers and even family members of workers.

Waterside workers who loaded asbestos onto ships, mechanics that worked on asbestos-filled brake pads, electricians and technicians in power stations that used asbestos, as well as builders, carpenters, roofers and other tradespeople that used ‘fibro’ building products.

After many years of concerted union campaigning, the use of asbestos in Australian workplaces was banned at the end of 2003.

But more than 500 Australians die annually from the asbestos disease mesothelioma, that rate is still increasing and the number of deaths each year are still to peak.  Even after the projected peak number of deaths each year, people will continue to die from asbestos-related diseases for many years to come.  And now, added to all these deaths, there are serious concerns that the boom in DIY renovations will expose more people to breathing in asbestos.  Home renovators contracting asbestos related diseases are already being call the ‘fourth wave’ of sufferers.

Asbestos-related disease
The inhalation of asbestos fibres can lead to asbestosis, a severely disabling respiratory disease, and to asbestos mesothelioma, an incurable form of lung cancer.

Mesothelioma is a disease that occurs in the lining of the lung and causes extreme pain and breathlessness.  Australia has the highest per capita incidence of mesothelioma in the world.  

There are no cures for mesothelioma and it is usually fatal within about 9–12 months of diagnosis. Up to 18,000 Australians are likely to die from mesothelioma by 2020 and historical figures suggest that for each diagnosed case of mesothelioma there are as many cases of lung cancer and non-malignant asbestos-related disease.

James Hardie
Until the mid-1980s James Hardie was Australia’s largest manufacturer of asbestos-containing products particularly asbestos cement sheet or fibro, as well as brake and clutch linings.

There is evidence that James Hardie had knowledge of the dangers of asbestos from at least the 1930s but no warnings or directions were placed on the company’s asbestos fibro products until 1978.  

In October 2001 the James Hardie company moved to The Netherlands and set up as a Dutch company taking with it $1.9 billion in assets from its former Australian companies.

Following campaigning by unions and asbestos groups, in 2004 David Jackson QC conducted a Special Commission of Inquiry into the adequacy of funding for James Hardie asbestos victims.

Justice for asbestos victims
In September 2004, tens of thousands of Australian unionists held rallies under the banner Make James Hardie Pay in capital cities around Australian to coincide with the company’s Australian shareholder briefing meeting in Sydney.

Unions in the United States rallied in support of Australian asbestos victims outside James Hardie's US headquarters in California taking union protests into the US market where the company earns more than 80% of its income.

The Jackson Inquiry found James Hardie had seriously under-funded its liabilities to asbestos victims and recommended charges against company directors and officers for making misleading and deceptive statements.

Under pressure from all sides, James Hardie agreed to negotiate a settlement.

On 21 December 2004, the ACTU, Unions NSW, asbestos groups represented by Bernie Banton, and the NSW Government signed a Heads of Agreement with former asbestos products manufacturer James Hardie for what is believed to be the largest personal injury settlement in Australia's history.

Unions continue campaign
In August 2009 the New South Wales Supreme Court handed down fines and penalties for former James Hardie directors and executives, including a 15 year ban and $350,000 fine for former CEO Peter Macdonald.

In August 2009, owing to the downturn in the US housing market, unions sought assurances from the company that it would be able to meet its obligations to the Asbestos Injuries Compensation Fund over coming years.

“Over the longer term, it is essential that the company is not let off the hook over its obligations to maintain a fully-funded compensation scheme, and unions will pursue James Hardie over any failure to fulfil those obligations,” said former ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence.

National Asbestos Management Review
In June 2010, the ACTU, AMWU and the Cancer Council Australia convened a national summit calling for the national coordination of asbestos removal, and the establishment of a National Asbestos Authority. The summit also devised a set of strategies for an asbestos free Australia.

In late 2010, the Gillard Labor Government announced the establishment of the National Asbestos Management Review to develop a plan to improve asbestos awareness, management and removal. The review was headed by former ACTU Assistant Secretary, Geoff Fary.

In its submission to the review, the union movement identified six priority issues for dealing with asbestos in Australia:

1.   A National Strategic Plan must aim for the elimination of all Asbestos Containing Material from the built environment by 2030.

2.   Establishment of a stand-alone National Asbestos Authority by the Federal Government.

3.   A national audit identifying the location and condition of all ACM in the built environment.

  • Government owned buildings and workplaces, as well as asbestos dump sites, are the priority areas for an audit.
  • All privately owned residential properties must obtain an ‘Asbestos Safety Certificate’, (auditing asbestos) when a property is sold or leased.

4.   ‘Prioritised removal’ is necessary to get rid of asbestos, starting with government – owned buildings.

5.   Education and awareness is an important component of an asbestos strategy – but not the only thing that must be done.

6.   Asbestos must only be removed by licensed removalists.

The report of the review was released on 16 August 2012.

What's next
The first outcome of the review is the establishment of a new Office for Asbestos Safety, which was announced by the Minister for Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten, at the second ACTU-Cancer Council Asbestos Summit on 4 September.

A new organisation with a central coordinating role will pave the way for a national approach to asbestos awareness and management in Australia.

It will draw up a national strategic plan for the identification, management and removal of asbestos.
The government has also announced a number of research projects on management and awareness of asbestos that will commence in advance of the agency’s establishment.

The research will include examining current infrastructure for the disposal of asbestos products, and a comprehensive study of community awareness of and attitudes to asbestos.

Unions will continue to push for adoption of the other recommendations of the report.

Asbestos Register
All workplaces are required by law to identify whether  asbestos is present and, if so, its location and condition.  If present, it should be labelled and a Register should be easily available.  Contact your Health and Safety Representative for more advice or information on this.  Identifying whether asbestos is in your workplace is the first step to managing it.  And the best way to manage a hazard like asbestos – get rid of it! Using, of course, a professional licensed asbestos removalist.