We can learn from the asbestos scandal

By Mel Mac at Political Omniscience:

Last week asbestos was found again in imported Chinese building materials, this time it was found at Perth Children’s Hospital (PCH) in the roof panels. In February this year news broke that more than 50 sites across Australia are suspected of illegal asbestos contamination. Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency CEO Peter Tighe, said that he was aware of 64 sites where asbestos-tainted materials have been used in construction.  “It’s an emerging problem and it seems to be growing exponentially, as more and more products are brought into Australia, because of the wind-down of manufacturing in this country,” he said. “What we’ve really got now is really an indication which could be the tip of the iceberg.” Because importing asbestos has been banned since 2003, Mr Tighe is also concerned about younger tradespeople and said “Our young tradespeople haven’t been trained to deal with these products. They think they’re asbestos free,” and that “It’s really a risk to these individuals, to their clients and to members of the public who might be in the vicinity when there’s cutting, drilling or manipulation of asbestos cement products.”

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon is calling for not just more scrutiny of overseas building products but greater penalties. “This needs a comprehensive approach [which] needs to include Customs doing their job, not just having random searches,” he said. “It needs certification of the supply chain so that if you’re an importer and your product has asbestos in it, unless you’ve done everything possible to check and double check, you should face a potential jail term.”

The panels used at the PHC were supplied by Chinese company Yuanda which also had another scandal to contend with last week, involving asbestos-laden gasket material in Brisbane’s new government tower. In February, Federal Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton, ordered an independent review of asbestos border control management, by KGH Border Services. The review has been completed, but kept confidential. A Senate inquiry [PDF] into non-conforming building products released an interim report in May with illuminating submissions about the Lacrosse apartment fire in Melbourne. The fire was caused by imported Chinese cladding with Mr Adam Dalrymple, Director of Fire Safety, Metropolitan Fire Brigade, describing the incident to the committee as one that alone could have ‘claimed hundreds of lives if things had turned out a little differently’.

“We were probably really lucky that did not happen on that occasion. What we are saying here is that fire safety really should not be a matter of good luck. The fire started on a balcony from an unextinguished cigarette — an innocuous type of thing, you would think. This set fire to the cladding, and the panelling itself allowed the fire to travel the full extent of the building — 23 levels in 11 minutes. That is something we have never, really, seen before. We would say this should not have been allowed to happen.

In 31 years as a fire-fighter and 20 years as a fire safety specialist I have never seen a fire like this — in my lifetime — and I have made it my business to study fires of this nature, so we can get a better outcome for fire-fighters in the community. We have grave concerns about the use of non-compliant product and that it may result in disastrous loss of life, and we cannot tell you when the next event is going to happen. This is a modern building, constructed within the last five years. It has been a valid assumption, up until now, that newer buildings are relatively safe and probably safer than old ones. From a fire services perspective, right now, I cannot guarantee that and I cannot, categorically, state that that is a true fact.”

The Senate interim report said that strengthening enforcement should be a high priority for the Federal Government. “The importation of banned materials, such as asbestos, raises very serious concerns about the capacity of Australian authorities to deal with this issue, particularly in light of our open and dynamic trade environment,” the report stated. The Asbestos Industry Association last year shared concerns that the Australian Border Force (ABF) officials were checking less than 5% of all products coming into Australia. It’s also worth noting that building products are not the only imports tainted with asbestos – children’s crayons and car parts have also come under scrutiny.

The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) has stated that regulations on prohibited imports allowed for fines of up to $170,000, but that “such penalties have not been commonly used as a deterrent”. Since 2009, only $64,000 in fines and costs have been collected from asbestos importation offences. ASEA also said: “The agency considers that an increased willingness to enforce the penalties available under the regulations would assist in reducing the incidence of non-conforming building products being imported into Australia,” and they also called for: “increased surveillance and screening of imported building products, with particular attention to those products previously found to contain asbestos.”

The Master Builders Association (MBA) WA said: “In WA, owner-builders are about 10% of the (house building) market,” and MBA executive director Michael McLean said. “That’s a couple of thousand new homes every year. What qualifications do a lot of these owner- builders have in accessing products for their homes? At least a builder has some experience or qualifications to make some assessment in these things. And that: “Because of the internet, builders and members of the public are accessing products from all over the world,” he said.

The Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia (ADFA) has asked the Federal government to urgently boost monitoring of imported building products. They say a greater sense of urgency is required in the wake of the asbestos exposure at PCH. ADFA president Barry Robson said “The Customs people used to come down and physically unpack the containers if they were suspicious of anything. Or they would come down and crawl all over that ship and inspect it from top to bottom, you don’t see that anymore, you haven’t seen that for decades. It’s just the lack of controls of imports into this country.” Mr Robson also said that construction companies and governments put too much faith in overseas certification, suggesting it would be better to source locally made products. “These importers should go to the manufacturer in China and make sure that there is no asbestos, if they’re not sure then don’t bring it into this country — have it manufactured in this country where we know there will be no asbestos in these building products.”

The Australian building and construction industry accounts for ~8% of Gross Domestic Profit (GDP) and employs 9% of the workforce. The industry contributed $108.4bn to the Australian economy in the 2013-14 financial year. At the end of the 2014 financial year it had generated $359bn in total income and employed 1,073,000 people. Questions need to be asked as to what is happening with registration fees paid by importers to ensure that their products are safe. They also need to be asked about why only $64,000 has been collected in fines since 2009, considering asbestos has been banned since 2003 and that we are now over half way through 2016.

The Turnbull government wants to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) because it believes the building and construction industry is riven with “militarism and illegality”. The problem is that the ABCC has power in civil matters not criminal matters [PDF], the police do this work. And we already have the Fair Work Building Commission (FWBC) to do this work. Scrolling through the FWBC’s News and Media page on their web site they’ve not been idle with ~$300,000 worth of penalties issued for this month alone. The government relying on old modelling from 2007 stating that productivity grew by 9% under the ABCC, has also been discredited. The Hon. Murray Wilcox QC described the 2007 report as “deeply flawed” and concluded that ‘it ought to be totally disregarded.’ It is from this discredited report that the 9.4 per cent figure of lost productivity is derived [and] it should not be relied upon…”

I agree that we need a tough new cop on the beat just not what for the Turnbull government is claiming it needs to be for. There is illegality going on (including an increase in asbestos dumping) right under everybody’s noses and if left unchecked great tragedies could occur. Profits are not more important than people and for all the talk of “jobs and growth” this could be achieved if we manufactured and procured building products from Australia. Australia is trusted by countries like China for our safety procedures, in particular when it comes to handling food. In 2008 China had a contaminated milk disaster that saw children die and hundreds of thousands of children poisoned by melamine, an industrial chemical used in fertilisers and plastics, that was intentionally used to boost it’s ‘protein’ content. We’ve already had our own Chinese food scare with Nanna’s hepatitis A laced, frozen berries last year. With China’s middle class growing and wanting to improve their lifestyle, we have seen not just our high quality products like powdered baby formula become white gold but honey and vitamins too.

If we can be premium food suppliers, with trusted first class health and safety standards to China, we can become globally renowned for this and our quality control in other industries too. Our future would be much better if we became a nation of creators rather than outsourcing and profiting from the likes of turning a blind eye to health and safety.

This article was originally published at Political Omniscience

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