Unions, teachers appeal for a program to progressively remove asbestos in all schools

A figure released by the education department revealed that up to 1200 out of the state’s 1539 government schools may contain asbestos. Teachers, unions and parents have called out to authorities to establish a program to label areas affected with asbestos material, train staff to manage it, and progressively remove it from the school buildings. The action came after a number of safety breaches, including WorkSafe fines against the department for its failure to deal with asbestos properly.

The Age reports that contractors working at Geelong High School drilled a hole through a wall containing asbestos last year, just two years after the department received a $10,000 fine for a similar incident. Education Minister Martin Dixon denied widespread removal, saying there is only a risk to students once asbestos is disturbed.

“Where there is an identified risk to the health and wellbeing of students and teachers removal will be undertaken as a matter of the highest priority,” said Mr Dixon.

Over the past three years, asbestos-related issues have already taken place in schools. In 2010, around 30 pieces of asbestos were found at Albion North Primary School. WorkSafe issued safety improvement notices against the builder. In 2009, a parent of a student from Elsternwick Primary School called on WorkSafe after his daughter picked up asbestos. A campus of Essendon Keilor District College was closed for a day after a storm caused extensive damage and raised concerns on asbestos exposure.

Schools in Victoria are required to establish their own asbestos management plans, in which they should be able to identify its location and how to manage it. The department also conducts regular audits of schools with asbestos.

While asbestos risks are relatively lesser when affected areas are untouched, asbestos fibres that become airborne can cause lung cancer and other serious diseases. However, teachers as well as union officials want it removed from schools altogether.

“Because asbestos was banned (in 2003) many people think the problem has gone away, but it hasn’t,” said Australian Education Union vice-president Carolyn Clancy. “It’s a ticking time bomb.”

Justin Harris, health and safety representative of Geelong High School also believes that asbestos should be removed in schools. “The government basically just says to schools, ‘Well you’ve got a budget – you manage it.’ For schools that’s a huge problem because we have limited budget and people aren’t trained to manage asbestos.”

Asbestos has been on the spotlight nationally, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard awaits the findings of a review on the way asbestos is being managed.

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union national secretary Paul Bastian, who is part of the review panel, said that a national audit of all public buildings to identify asbestos location should be conducted. A national program to have asbestos removed completely by 2030 should also be in place.

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