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The Opera House drama sending out a warning

13 Mar 2018 Graham Porter

In late 2017, electricians working on the $200 million renovation of the Sydney Opera House were exposed to potentially deadly asbestos fibres. It was the second such exposure on the site in as many months. 

The Electrical Trades Union representing the workers demanded the renovations be stopped until safety could be guaranteed for workers, performers and the public. Political parties weighed in, the state safety regulator’s actions were called into question, and the builder threatened to sue striking workers. It was drama you’d expect to see on the Opera House’s stages, not played out in public.

With incidents like this attracting widespread media coverage, and with deaths from asbestos-related illnesses on the rise, those responsible for workplace safety are being put on notice. It’s a view supported by Denny Bolatti, General Manager, WHS & Occupational Hygiene at Trinitas Group, CCI’s hazardous materials management partner.

Asbestos

“What we’ve learnt by talking to the decision makers in the dioceses and archdioceses is that many organisations have never had someone come out and complete a hazardous materials survey. A lot of the time we hear, ‘We haven’t done one in the last 100 years, why should we do it now?’ So we just start the discussion about what the legislation says and explain the benefits. It’s a process.”

All states and territories have acts and regulations regarding the management of hazardous materials. Many also have codes of practice or compliance codes that must be addressed – and hefty penalties for not doing so. 

Having a hazardous materials survey conducted is a requirements of anyone in charge of a workplace. Not surprisingly, the surveys are one of Trinitas Group’s most requested services. They involve surveying properties for hazardous materials like asbestos, lead, polychlorinated biphenyl, and synthetic mineral fibres. 

“We go onsite, we collect samples of materials, the samples go to a lab, they get analysed, and we put all those results into a register with photos for clients,” says Bolatti. “One of the reasons why registers are mandatory is so contractors can go onsite and know exactly where the hazardous materials are located. They can look at the register and say that has asbestos in it, so we’re not going to drill into that.”

The ‘she’ll be right’ attitude of years gone by is simply no longer acceptable. If people can be exposed to life-threatening materials at an iconic building like the Sydney Opera House, it can happen anywhere.

“We were called out to a private school where carpenters were asked to pull down a few internal walls,” says Bolatti. “The school didn’t have a hazardous materials register so they were never told the walls were made of asbestos. The carpenters started drilling into the walls not knowing they were being exposed to asbestos fibres. It wasn’t until a builder with more experience said, ‘Look, I think this wall is made from asbestos,’ that they stopped the job.”

Being proactive in this area is key. The Victorian Government is showing leadership by committing $155 million to a program removing asbestos from schools. By 2020 high-risk asbestos will be removed from more than 1,200 schools across the state. 

It’s now up to leaders of all organisations to make their workplaces safe. Failure to do so can lead to reputational damage, fines, jail, and most significantly, loss of life. Let’s save the drama for the stage. Have a hazardous materials survey conducted, get a management plan in place, and let’s keep our workforces and communities safe. 


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Graham Porter

With almost 30 years of experience in the insurance and financial services sector, Graham’s expertise drives risk management support for Catholic Schools and Catholic Education Offices, across Australia. He holds a CCI Church and Parish segment leadership role, evaluating frameworks for responding to critical risks. He is a strategic leader who assists Church organisational supervisors to identify critical risk issues and incorporate risk thinking into their business decisions.

See all articles by Graham

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