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Education and Employment Legislation Committee
Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency

Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency


CHAIR: I welcome Ms Ross. Do you wish to make an opening statement?

Ms Ross : No, I don't.

CHAIR: Excellent. I'll hand over to Labor—Senator Pratt.

Senator PRATT: Thank you very much, Chair. One month ago, there was a press release where the agency said that Australia has one of the highest measured incident rates of mesothelioma in the world and it's likely to continue for many years. Given we're now at the end of 2019, I want to ask why we still don't have a new national strategic plan for asbestos management and awareness when the last one, from five years ago, expired last year.

Ms Ross : We actually do have a plan for 2019-23. It was signed by the minister at the time, which was Minister O'Dwyer. She approved the plan before the last federal election. She wrote to her state and territory counterparts seeking their approval of the plan. We have received approval back from state and territory work, health and safety ministers. All have approved the plan, apart from Western Australia, which has given in principle support to the four national priorities in the plan pending further consultation with other agencies within the government.

Senator PRATT: In Western Australia?

Ms Ross : In Western Australia. I guess the issue cuts across governments at all levels. It's not just work, health and safety; it's public health; it's the environment. They're just doing some further consultation. But our proposal is to formally launch the plan at the Asbestos Safety Conference, which will be in Perth on 11 November.

Senator PRATT: You said there are four national priorities. What are those?

Ms Ross : The first one is improving asbestos awareness to influence behavioural change. That's particularly important. You mentioned the rate of mesothelioma. I think there was a view, particularly at the time that the asbestos management review was conducted in 2013, that the rate would start peaking around now. It is what we call 'the third wave'. The victims are people who were undertaking DIY renovations: homeowners and occupiers. The first priority is really about getting the awareness message out, particularly to homeowners and DIY renovators but also to those working in the industry, particularly in the trades, including young apprentices. The second one is about identification and effective legacy management of asbestos-containing materials. There's still a large amount of asbestos-containing materials within the built environment. When the ban was put in place in 2013—the final ban which banned chrysotile asbestos—it didn't require the removal of what was already in place, so that legacy needs to be effectively managed. While asbestos stays within the built environment it's safe, but once it's disturbed it needs to be removed. That is why the third priority is about the safe removal of the asbestos—having assessed the risks and prioritising the asbestos-containing material that is presenting the highest risk, to start removing that.

Senator PRATT: Does that mean the plan will indicate how you go about teaching, for example, householders to examine whether they've got exposed and dangerous asbestos in their house?

Ms Ross : Although householders can remove asbestos themselves, the strong recommendation from the agency and, I think, from many of the regulators involved is to get professionals in.

Senator PRATT: My issue is to show householders how to work out whether they've got a problem to start with—

Ms Ross : Yes, that's right.

Senator PRATT: not necessarily what to do about it—for example, to recognise whether the asbestos fence I've got in my backyard is safe or unsafe.

Ms Ross : Yes. One of the areas of work, particularly under priority 2, is having a good picture of the extent of the materials that are still in the environment, particularly in the residential sector and particularly so we can get those awareness messages out as well.

Senator PRATT: You've got effective management, DIY—what were the other two?

Ms Ross : The other two were removal, and then the fourth one is international collaboration and leadership. This is where Australia led the way, in a sense, in imposing a total ban of asbestos-containing products. We work with countries in South-East Asia and help them work towards bans; this is work that is led by the agency. The World Health Organization has recommendations about a series of steps towards imposing bans, so we work with them. Under this plan we will be working with countries in the Pacific region as well.

Senator PRATT: What is the main differences between this new plan and the current plan?

Ms Ross : It's that we've actually put in a set of national targets. At the moment we have eight national targets. One of the difficulties we found in evaluating progress under the 2014-18 plan was that there were no targets included and no data that was collected. No proper measurement was done of what progress was made. That is another big chunk of work that the agency's been undertaking—identifying the data sources to measure the targets so that at the end of this phase of the plan, 2023, we will have quite a better picture of how far we've progressed.

Senator PRATT: There'll be performance measures for you as an agency—it will be your role to track performance across the whole country as to the outcomes?

Ms Ross : Yes, that's right.

Senator PRATT: Do you have any indication yet of what those benchmarks will be in the new plan?

Ms Ross : The targets are all there. I can read them out to you if you like.

Senator PRATT: No, that's fine. You can take them on notice. I note one activity listed in the review of the NSP is 'James Hardie: re-assessment and testing of asbestos disposal legacy sites'. Can you tell us about that, please?

Ms Ross : Sorry, Senator, I don't know. Can you repeat that?

Senator PRATT: That's fine, if you don't know off the top of your head. It was about reassessment and testing of asbestos disposal legacy sites, but I'm happy for you to take that on notice along with the other questions.

Ms Ross : I think that might be best.

CHAIR: I think Senator McMahon has a question. Does Labor have any more questions?

Senator PRATT: Yes. Finally, I wanted to ask about the review of the last plan in terms of its success or failures. What's the assessment of the effectiveness of the last plan and will there be a formal review of it that's published?

Ms Ross : We have published a final progress report; that's on our website. We concluded that, certainly, from the time the plan started a lot more action has been taken by the Commonwealth and by the states and territories. I think it focused attention on the issues, most definitely, and what needed to be done. But—particularly for the agency—it was very much a phase of building an evidence base. A lot of research was commissioned; I think we commissioned around 35 reports. We're using that evidence base to move forward. Our stakeholders are saying to us that they want to see a lot more actual action take place.

Senator PRATT: Does the new plan drill down into areas of Australian housing where you know there are likely to be high levels of asbestos?

Ms Ross : Yes.

Senator PRATT: It will?

Ms Ross : Yes. That's one of the concerns that came out of the evaluation: the first phase of the plan didn't have enough focus on the residential sector. We've made sure that we have included that in this one.

Senator McMAHON: Do you maintain any kind of log or register of known dump sites in the Darwin area of the Northern Territory where asbestos-containing materials have been found?

Ms Ross : Do you mean illegally dumped or—

Senator McMAHON: Either legally or illegally.

Ms Ross : We keep a record—and you can see this on our website—of licensed facilities to dispose of asbestos. We have a little tool on our website where you can put your postcode in and it will come up with a range of licensed facilities.

In terms of illegal disposal: we don't keep records of that. We have done research on that. If you don't mind, I could take that on notice to see what our research concluded on that. Illegal disposal of asbestos is a significant problem and one of the targets in the new plan is actually aimed at making disposal easier and cheaper, with the aim of preventing illegal disposal.

Senator McMAHON: Would that register of sites go back historically? Say, to post Cyclone Tracy, when a lot of material was disposed of?

Ms Ross : No. As I said, the tool on our website is just where there are licensed facilities currently where you can go to dispose of it. I don't know whether our research may have mapped some of those other sites. I think we have been looking at that. There was a big project in the Northern Territory to clean up some of the land where some of the debris from Cyclone Tracy had been dumped. So I'm happy to take that on notice and see what information we have on that.

Senator McMAHON: Thank you. Which agency or agencies do you work with in the Northern Territory to get that information?

Ms Ross : I get confused what these are called throughout the country, because they all have different names! It's either safe work or work safe—

Senator McMAHON: NT WorkSafe?

Ms Ross : Yes. That's the main agency that we work with in the Northern Territory on asbestos matters. Although other areas are involved, they're the central point in that regard.

Senator PRATT: Is there a difference between tracking legal and illegal dump sites? Some of them might be historical disposal sites, so which of those are legal? Surely, it can't be legally possible to dump asbestos these days?

Ms Ross : No. As I said, we just have a tool so you can find a licensed facility in your area. That's what we have. If you put your postcode in it will come up with a licensed facility where you can go to dispose of it.

Senator PRATT: That's good to know, seeing I have asbestos in my yard!

CHAIR: There being no further questions for the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, consider yourselves released. Thank you for coming along this afternoon. I now welcome representatives from the Australian Building and Construction Commission.