Alcoa: asbestos risk low

ALCOA has moved to reassure workers that the health risk from asbestos found at the Kwinana refinery is considered extremely low.

Yesterday, three of WA�s three largest construction unions called for an urgent asbestos audit of Alcoa�s WA operations, claiming workers were exposed to white asbestos.

But an Alcoa spokeswoman said the �misinformation� and �continued speculation� regarding the potential low level asbestos exposure to a small number of contractors was deeply concerning.

On Friday, May 1, a contractor working at Alcoa�s Kwinana alumina refinery identified insulation tape suspected of containing asbestos that was covering weld seams in a tank roof that was being removed for replacement.

The spokeswoman said work stopped immediately and steps were taken for a licensed asbestos removal contractor to sample the material and contain and clean-up the affected area.

She said the insulation tape was located out of view in the sealed cavity between the two layers of the double-skinned steel roof, that had been installed in the late 1960s and there was no prior evidence or knowledge of its presence.

Independent analysis of the material confirmed it contained white asbestos.

Alcoa�s Director of Health and chief medical officer Michael Donoghue said he understood there would be some concern about the issue among contractors and employees.

�However the risk of any health impact to the contractors working on the job was considered extremely low due to the non-friable condition of the material, the limited amount of the material, the type of asbestos contained in the material and the short duration of the task,� he said.

Dr Donoghue said the risk of any worker developing asbestos related disease following brief exposure to white asbestos at airborne concentrations near the workplace exposure standard is extremely low.

He said for brief exposures, such as the potential exposure related to the incident in question, the health risk is negligible. Further, the risk to people more distant from the task and particularly to any family or friends is even lower.

The Alcoa spokeswoman said a thorough risk assessment was undertaken. The presence of asbestos was not confirmed in similar vessels, but they were still added to the asbestos register.

�Alcoa has communicated with its workforce, including contractors, to raise awareness of its robust processes and protocols related to the handling of hazardous materials, including asbestos,� she said.

�Dr Donoghue will also brief crews at Kwinana refinery next week.�

The reassurances by Alcoa came after three unions called for an audit, claiming workers had been exposed to a deadly material.

A union spokeswoman said seven maintenance workers on the plant�s mud thickener noticed a white powdery substance in the roof sheeting, which testing confirmed was asbestos.

According to the unions, dozens more workers were potentially exposed to the substance before the company closed off the area.

Union members claimed Alcoa did not act to ensure the workers were not carrying asbestos particles before returning home, meaning the workers� families could have also been exposed.

CFMEU State Secretary Mick Buchan said it was an absolute disgrace that dozens of workers were directly or indirectly exposed to asbestos at the Kwinana Refinery.

�Workers have the right to goto work and do their job without the fear of being exposed to deadly material in the workplace,� he said.

�Asbestos is a hazardous material known to cause fatal mesothelioma and lung cancer as well as being linked to cancer of the colon, vocal chords and asbestosis.�

Mr Buchan said the latest discovery was a reminder of the need for employers to take seriously their obligations on hazardous material in the workplace and make sure asbestos registers were up to date.

Australian Manufacturing Workers� Union State Secretary Steve McCartney said it was simply not good enough that workers� health had been placed at unnecessary risk and immediate action must be taken.

�Workers and their families have unknowingly been put at serious risk at the Kwinana Refinery and we need an immediate audit of asbestos at Alcoa�s WA operations to make sure workers aren�t exposed to this deadly material again,� he said.

Mr McCartney said employers had a duty of care to protect the health and safety of workers and that Alcoa had failed in their duty.

�Alcoa failed to carry out tests at the site before the workers moved in to do maintenance work. If the workers had not asked questions about the white powder and called in their union officials, it may never have been tested.�

Electrical Trades Union (ETU) State Secretary, Les McLaughlan said exposure to any type of asbestos was potentially lethal and should not be tolerated.

�This incident is a stark reminder that there is no room for complacency when it comes to worker health and safety and it is simply not good enough to take short cuts or plead ignorance when it comes to asbestos,� he said.

�It is completely unacceptable that workers were exposed to asbestos and may have inadvertently taken the deadly material back to their homes and families.�

The three union secretaries urged an immediate audit to ensure asbestos registers were up to date as required by law.