Asbestos problems not consigned to the past

26/11/2019

Geelong Advertiser

Geelong has long been a significant part of the engine room of Victoria. The development of aluminium smelters, refinery and car assembly plants brought jobs and prosperity. It also brought asbestos insulation to these large sites, wrapped around pipes and encasing boilers, writes Rachel Schutze.

This week is Asbestos Awareness Week.

It provides all of us with an opportunity to reflect on the damage this “wonder mineral” has caused all over Australia and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the wider Geelong area.

According to the Australian Cancer Atlas, the region of Corio had 80% higher numbers of people diagnosed with lung cancer than the national average. True it is that there are many causes of lung cancer and that asbestos is not the only cause but it seems likely, that in part, the cause of this terrible statistic is in some way related to asbestos exposure in the course of the Geelong region’s proud working history.

Geelong has long been a significant part of the engine room of Victoria. The development of aluminium smelters, refinery and car assembly plants brought jobs and prosperity. It also brought asbestos insulation to these large sites, wrapped around pipes and encasing boilers.

The insulation was applied by men who suffered exposure, often without any protection and when they left work for the day, they looked like snowmen, covered in white dust.

The insulation, once applied was worked on over the years; by boilermakers, plumbers, electricians and other trades. Every time it was disturbed, it would release more dangerous dust.

Colleagues Victoria Keyes and Peter Gordon have lost count of the people they have acted for who were exposed in this way. Different trades, different stories, all devastated by the diagnosis of an asbestos related disease.

These workers in our community and all over Australia did nothing but go to work, only to be diagnosed with an often terminal condition, some 40 or so years later.

The face of asbestos related disease is changing. Today my colleagues assist women who washed their husbands’ clothes, or swept up after the renovation to the family home. Sometimes they are the children who were keen to help Dad with the renovation work or went to work with their fathers on school holidays when commercial child care did not exist and sat on bags of asbestos in the hulls of ships or on the docks or construction site while their fathers shovelled the asbestos or moved the bags that they were shipped in.

Many of the houses built in Corio and Norlane in the fifties and sixties as well as houses all over the Bellarine and Surf Coast which are now being renovated in the DIY era contain asbestos in their walls and under their floors.

When we renovated our home fifteen years ago, the builders discovered asbestos on day two of the renovation and had to immediately call in asbestos removal experts to remove and safely dispose of the asbestos before continuing their work. At one point having been bitten by the DIY bug we contemplated doing some of the work ourselves. Fortunately we knew that whilst our intentions were good, our skills were lacking and we called in the professionals. I shudder to think what might have happened if we had tackled the job ourselves. Would we have even recognised the asbestos in its commercial form when we were doing the work?

People who are diagnosed with asbestos related diseases are generally entitled to compensation.

Common myths however, also surround the ability to bring a claim for compensation for an asbestos related disease.

It is important that you know you may be able to bring a claim even when:

• the company you worked for has closed or been deregistered;

• the exposure to asbestos was a long time ago;

• you were exposed outside of your working life - such as when performing a home renovation or through contact with a family member who brought asbestos home;

• you were exposed when you were a child;

• you were a smoker.

So this Asbestos Awareness Week, I will be thinking of those hardworking men and women who helped build Geelong and indeed our State and paid with their lives. I will also be encouraging anyone who is contemplating home renovations or comes into contact with asbestos to take rigorous care and precautions and to seek advice before you begin.

Rachel Schutze is a Principal Lawyer at Gordon Legal, wife and mother of three.

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