Asbestos is a hazardous material which if inhaled, can cause serious health problems like asbestosis and lung cancer, including mesothelioma. Although a national ban on the use of asbestos came into effect in 2003, it can still be found in, and around, older residential and workplace buildings.
This audit assessed if WorkSafe effectively regulates the asbestos removal industry in Western Australia. It follows my Office’s 2007 report on Management of Asbestos-Related Risks by Government Agencies and the 2015 report on Asbestos Management in Public Sector Agencies.
Australia is ahead of some international jurisdictions in managing asbestos risk. However, due to the seriousness of the risks, and the fact that many workers may not be aware of the very hazardous materials they are exposed to, community expectations around government regulation and employer responsibility are high. Although asbestos is a challenging area to regulate, we expected WorkSafe to have established good practices for regulating asbestos removal. This was not what we found as there are several areas where WorkSafe needs to improve its practices.
Asbestos is prevalent throughout the State and WorkSafe relies on timely notification from industry to observe safe removal practices. While there is a reasonable amount of regulatory activity and contact by WorkSafe with the asbestos removal industry, practices are inconsistent and not well documented. For example, although regulatory contact through audits of licensees is frequent – approximately once every 3 years – these audits are only records-based at the licensees’ offices and do not involve inspections of worksites where asbestos is removed. The worksite inspection regime for asbestos removal is infrequent and assessment documentation does not clearly indicate how higher risk operators and removal activities are targeted. It is important that monitoring and compliance activities provide assurance of safe practices at the point of potential harm to workers and the community from this dangerous substance.
Respirable crystalline silica is also an issue that has attracted national media attention recently because of the occupational health hazards that it poses just like asbestos. Silicosis, however, can have a shorter period between exposure and diagnosis, and usually proves fatal. As part of this audit, we looked briefly at what WorkSafe is doing to address this rapidly emerging issue for some manufacturing industries. We found that WorkSafe has started addressing this issue by raising awareness in a campaign targeting benchtop fabrication businesses and is conducting investigations into respirable crystalline silica exposure at workplaces. Although manufacturing businesses using products that contain crystalline silica are not licensed like asbestos removalists, many of our recommendations could be applied to those other businesses to reduce health risk to workers and the community.
I am pleased that the new WorkSafe Commissioner has accepted my Office’s findings and has committed to building organisational and staff capability in the regulation of asbestos removal to better manage worker health measures and other worksite risks. WorkSafe has a renewed focus and is currently undergoing significant change in how it regulates asbestos removal.
Many other State and local government entities license or register businesses across a range of industries. I hope those entities will also consider how the recommendations in this report can be applied to their own diverse regulatory regimes.