Authorities involved in managing the health and safety impacts of the Canterbury rebuild have today raised concerns at the way in which asbestos material is being managed on a number of work sites across the region.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the Canterbury medical officer of health are urging all of those working on any site, where there may be the possibility of asbestos, to make sure it is accurately identified.
Most buildings that were constructed prior to 1980 are likely to contain some form of asbestos. However, there is a chance that asbestos products may have found their way into buildings constructed or renovated after this.
"These buildings account for a large proportion of those being demolished, or due for demolition or repair in the rebuild, so great care must be taken," says MBIE’s Canterbury rebuild health and safety programme director, Kathryn Heiler.
"It is absolutely crucial that before any work takes place on a site that is thought to have asbestos, or asbestos containing materials, that it is accurately identified. If you have any doubt, you must either assume it is asbestos and put in the place the appropriate controls and notify MBIE of restricted work, or arrange for samples to be taken from the site and sent to an accredited laboratory for testing."
Ms Heiler says the industry cannot just assume material does not contain asbestos - they are required to have a systematic approach to hazard identification.
"Let me be very clear. Any person with responsibility for the health and safety of the work site – be it the Principal, employer or contractor – must legally take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of their workers and those on the site. With asbestos it starts with accurate identification.
"We are currently seeing too many cases of asbestos not being properly identified and then subsequently poorly managed. This is unacceptable as it places people and the wider community at potential risk.
"If asbestos is present and it is friable, the work is then restricted work and MBIE must be notified. Appropriate controls must be put into place and great care must be taken to manage the risk. Anyone unsure of what to do should get in touch with MBIE immediately."
In 2012, 53 people in New Zealand were diagnosed with one of four asbestos and other occupational lung diseases. This includes mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural abnormalities, often long-latency diseases.
"The number of late twentieth century buildings being demolished or repaired in Christchurch following the earthquakes is unprecedented in New Zealand and on a scale rarely seen anywhere in the world," says Canterbury medical officer of health, Dr Alistair Humphrey.
"It is imperative that the asbestos hazard is taken seriously - the earthquakes have claimed enough lives already without a second wave of deaths decades in the future. The asbestos risk can be managed safely and should be managed safely.”
Posted 7 November 2013