The discovery of potentially lethal asbestos at Alinta’s construction site within Alcoa’s Wagerup refinery grounds prompted worried contractors to flee the area this week.
About 120 Alcoa workers also stopped work yesterday while management tried to allay their fears.
The asbestos was found in packaging for pipes imported from India, prompting a major clean-up, the installation of air-monitoring stations, the affected area to be quarantined and medical tests to be offered to all workers.
Alinta, which is using contractors on its Cogeneration construction site, has also bagged and removed soil from the affected area and locked all the containers which had carried the pipes.
“Alinta Limited regards this as a serious matter and is actively working with accredited safety officials and union representatives to mitigate any risk this may present,” the company said in a statement.
Yesterday, the Australian Workers Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the CEPU (Engineering and Electrical Division) met Alcoa about members’ concerns — the Alinta site is separated only by a wire fence.
CEPU assistant State secretary Jim Murie said it was easy to understand why workers were so anxious.
“It only takes one tiny fibre of asbestos which you can’t even see to lodge in the lungs and kill a person, but of course it doesn’t then permeate for about 20-odd years,” he said.
“There’s also concern it has blown into the carpark and was it on cars? Has it been taken home? This morning a whole range of confusions erupted.”
Sufficient reassurances were made during yesterday’s meetings to persuade Alcoa staff to return to work, and a full investigation will be carried out, with the Alinta contractors and unions involved.
But AMWU State president Steven McCartney insisted the asbestos should never have been allowed into the country in the first place.
“It seems ironic that for the last 63 years or so asbestos has been outlawed here yet we choose to use Third World countries to manufacture pipe work which can be done here, then when we import it we get Third World conditions in the wrapping,” he said.
AWU branch secretary Tim Daly condemned the fact that workers might have been exposed to the asbestos.
Alcoa said all its workers would receive a letter of confirmation that the site was clear and safe.