Workers down tools after asbestos found on Sydney Opera House site

Work on the $200 million refurbishment of the iconic Sydney Opera House ground to a holt on the 1 August 2017, after workers were exposed to asbestos. 

According to reports workers had been exposed to the deadly fibres for at least five days without appropriate action being taken to remove it. 

In an exclusive interview with, Electrical Trades Union (ETU) NSW secretary, Justin Page believes Opera House management, Laing O’Rourke and Downer would have been fully aware there was asbestos on the site.

“What they have failed to do is put the appropriate controls in place,” said Page. 

“Yesterday, there was a meeting between the ETU, the safety committee and SafeWork Australia to nut out a pathway forward. We thought we had an agreement where an independent hygienist would be engaged to come and assess the site and workers would be able to come and collectively discuss the site.”

“Laing O’Rourke reneged on that deal this morning and refused to let workers meet collectively and engage the independent hygienist. The work ban has escalated to other work groups so it’s not just the electricians now,” said Page. 

Page says the State Government, at the start of the project, should have included asbestos removal rather than just the management of it in its plans. 

“We are calling on the State Government to look at removing the asbestos and the opposition shadow minister has called on the government to remove it.” 

“We’ve had 25 electricians exposed to it who identified it last Monday and asked for it to be tested. It came back positive but again Laing O’Rourke failed to remove those workers from the site earlier. We’ve had no option but to put work bans in place to protect those workers and the public,” said Page. 

“Until an independent hygienist is engaged and identifies the area where asbestos is, we’ll maintain our work bans.” 

In light of the Opera House asbestos finding this week, the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency has called for an urgent national program of removal of high-risk asbestos.

The Agency’s CEO Peter Tighe said the management regime clearly failed on this and other occasions to protect people from harmful exposure.

“There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos. It is unacceptable that 25 workers were exposed for a week before authorities were informed and steps put in place to protect the workers.”

“The regulations to protect people working in buildings require an asbestos register, a management plan, appraisal of areas where asbestos is identified, and removal of high risk asbestos before workers go in.”

Tighe suggests there is clearly a breakdown of the system and it has failed in the duty of care for workers at the Sydney Opera House this week.

“Next week it will be somewhere different. Our concern is that with the levels of asbestos present in Australian buildings, we will continue to see instances where workers and home renovators are exposed,” said Tighe. 

“We really need to move from management of asbestos to a proactive program of removing high risk asbestos from Australian buildings. We need to instigate removal programs right across the board – from homes and both government and privately owned buildings.” 

“A study we commissioned projected that mesothelioma rates from exposure through home renovation and workers in the building industry have not yet peaked,” said Tighe. 

“The time is up for asbestos in Australia. All levels of government and the community must face the challenge of removal of asbestos from our built environment.”

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