Published: 26/11/2021
Category: Work Health and Safety
Published: 26/11/2021
Category: Work Health and Safety

Australia’s asbestos legacy still impacts thousands of people Australia’s asbestos legacy still impacts thousands of people every year.

When you’re diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma, you have, on average, just 155 days left to live. That’s less than six months. Asbestos-related diseases are deadly, and they’re on the rise.

Unfortunately – even now in National Asbestos Awareness Week 2021 – Australia is still reeling from the impact of the deadly mineral.

In fact, we have one of the highest rates of mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases in the world. And despite a total ban on the use and import of all forms of asbestos in 2003, Australia continues to witness the devastating impact it has on workers and families.

The wide use of asbestos in the Australian building industry and the fact that the mineral was extensively mined in Australia are significant contributors to our high rates compared to other countries. And before the end of the century, it’s projected that around 19,400 new cases of mesothelioma will be diagnosed in Australia alone.

In the mid-1970s, when Australians started to recognise and understand the incredibly lethal dangers of asbestos, unions immediately stepped up to support workers, victims and their families.

A ban on all asbestos material was a long, hard-fought battle.

Australia has a long history of asbestos use. From the 1950s to the 1970s, we were one of the world’s highest per-capita consumers of asbestos. Asbestos was also mined for over a hundred years, with production only stopping in 1983.

The mineral was widely used in the manufacturing and construction industries, including many structures still being built up until the late 1980s. It was only on 31 December 2003 that Australia banned the use, re-use, import, export, and sale of all forms of asbestos after a lot of work from unions and advocates.

Unfortunately, by then, the damage was done. A ban can’t turn back time, and, to this day, there is still a large amount of asbestos in Australian buildings. At least one in three homes built between 1940 and 1990 is believed to contain asbestos.

That means that tradespeople, especially junior or inexperienced ones, could be putting themselves in extreme danger.

First came the battle to ban asbestos, then came the campaign for compensation.

Unions have always played a strong role in banning asbestos in all its forms. But we’ve also worked hard for genuine compensation for asbestos disease victims through landmark legal cases and campaigns.

In 2005, after a campaign led by asbestos activist Bernie Banton and Australian unions, James Hardie set aside another $4.5 billion for asbestos sufferers. And in 2007, a further compensation deal worth $4 billion was agreed upon.

The behaviour of James Hardie and its executives was sordid. The ACTU Secretary at the time, Greg Combet, described James Hardie’s behaviour as an ‘appalling, disgusting state of affairs.’

To this day, we’re proud of the work we did to support victims when very few others were willing to stand up for them. We’ll continue working hard to protect their rights and hold those responsible accountable.

Despite all the work unions have done to ban asbestos and compensate victims, there’s still more to be done.

More than 4,000 deaths per year can be attributed to asbestos, making Australia one of the deadliest countries in the world when it comes to asbestos-related deaths. This is still a work hazard that people deal with every day, despite the laws that are now in place.

Australian Unions supports the ongoing role of the independent Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency – an agency established in 2013 to raise asbestos awareness and its effective and safe management, removal and disposal.

We’re working hard to make sure more is done to support victims and prevent further deaths. We support the adoption and implementation of:

  • An asbestos register of people who have been exposed to asbestos. 
  • A national strategic plan to get rid of all asbestos-containing material from the built environment by 2030. 
  • The implementation of a national audit of buildings and products with potential asbestos-containing material. 
  • The development and adoption of an asbestos removal program, removed safely by licensed removalists. 

You can read the ACTU’s Congress 2021 policy on healthy, safe and respectful work for a complete list of Australian Unions policies and demands around asbestos.

Your union can help.

Asbestos still impacts the lives of thousands of Australian workers, and Australian Unions are here to support all of them. If you need support, reach out to us now.

National Asbestos Awareness Week

National Asbestos Awareness Week