“Renovation roulette” asbestos warning for home renovations

Tradespeople and property managers have been urged by Australia’s Asbestos Education Committee to respect the dangers of asbestos and to stop playing “renovation roulette” with asbestos.

“With one-in-three homes containing asbestos and with the continuing DIY boom, serious concerns have been raised that DIYers and tradies who renovate homes might be risking their lives and the lives of families by playing renovation roulette if they fail to respect the potentially life-threatening risks if asbestos is not managed safely,” said Clare Collins, Chair of the Asbestos Education Committee, a former government-administered body which is now independent body comprised of experts across health, government, industry and victims of asbestos-related diseases.

If asbestos-containing materials are disturbed during maintenance, renovation or demolition and minute fibres are released which can be inhaled, this can lead to asbestos-related diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma.

There is no cure for mesothelioma, a cancer that can develop between 33 and 44 years after inhaling asbestos fibres with the average survival time following diagnosis, just 12 months.
“With a staggering number of deaths each year from asbestos-related diseases and with deaths predicted to continue to rise among workers and those exposed to fibres during renovations; it’s vital that homeowners and tradies respect asbestos risks when renovating any home built before 1990,” said Collins.

“Renovators need to be aware that asbestos fibres were used in the manufacture of more than 3000 building and decorator products that lie hidden in one third of Aussie homes, and that asbestos detection is not included in a standard building report.”
Data from the Australian Mesothelioma Register shows since 2003, an average of 716 people have been diagnosed with mesothelioma each year nationwide. Sadly, the disease claims an average of more than 600 lives each year.

While many renovators may think that only tradies are at risk of asbestos-related diseases, the most recent Australian Mesothelioma Registry report (April 2023), found that 83 per cent of respondents were assessed as having had ‘possible or probable’ exposure to asbestos fibres in non-occupational settings – primarily homes.

Of the patients surveyed, the dominant non-occupational exposure to asbestos fibres (51 per cent) occurred when undertaking major home renovations. 38 per cent said they’d lived in a house undergoing renovations.

A further 20 per cent said they’d lived in the same home as someone who was exposed to asbestos at work and brought the fibres home, and 12 per cent said they’d lived in a house made of fibro that was built between 1947 and 1987.

The warning came on the back of the recent National Asbestos Awareness Week, with multiple WHS regulators echoing the Asbestos Education Committee’s message.
WorkSafe Victoria conducted inspections across regional and metropolitan Victoria, which focused on issues such as ensuring asbestos is identified prior to demolition, checking that there are processes for workers to know where asbestos is likely to be found and what to do if it is, and ensuring when required that any required asbestos removal is being undertaken by a licenced removalist.

Two decades since a nationwide ban on the use, importation and manufacture of asbestos, the regulator said asbestos continues to lurk in buildings built before 1990 and can be present in many different forms which can become disturbed on demolition and construction sites.
“This is an opportune time for employers to take stock and ensure they have systems in place to identify, manage and, where required, arrange the safe removal of asbestos,” said WorkSafe Victoria executive director of Health and Safety, Narelle Beer.

“Understanding the dangers of asbestos and meeting your obligations to reduce the risks can be the difference between you or a worker living a long and healthy life or developing a serious illness.”

So far in 2023, WorkSafe Victoria has completed six successful asbestos-related prosecutions with fines and costs totalling almost $100,000.

Employers are legally required to identify any asbestos-containing material in a workplace, label it and record it in an asbestos register. Asbestos removal licence holders are required to notify WorkSafe prior to any removal works, display appropriate signage, and ensure workers are wearing personal protective equipment during its removal.

Employers must also arrange medical examinations for all removalists or other workers engaged in asbestos-related activities where there is a risk to exposure to airborne asbestos fibres in excess of half the exposure standard.

SafeWork SA’s latest Asbestos Activity Health and Safety Snapshot also found there were 5348 asbestos notifications received in 2022-23.

Two asbestos compliance campaigns run by SafeWork SA earlier this year found that a high number of duty holders involved in the management or control of buildings known to contain asbestos were not fulfilling their obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2012 (SA).

The Asbestos Management – Demolition or Refurbishment Proactive Compliance Campaign 2023 included visits by SafeWork SA inspectors to 42 licensed asbestos removal sites where they performed 95 compliance audits across multiple duty holders.
A total of 30 statutory notices were issued, consisting of 12 prohibition notices and 18 improvement notices.

Letters of warning and reminders of legal obligations were issued to 13 licensed asbestos removalists who had a history of failing to comply with their obligations.
“Twenty years on from the banning of asbestos in Australia and the danger is as real as ever,” said SA Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector, Kyam Maher.
“Australia still has one of the highest death rates of asbestos-related diseases per capita in the world.”