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Shortly following the second confirmation of asbestos at the Sydney Opera House, 35 electrician workers walked off the job for fear of exposure. The workers were installing cabling as part of a $200 million renovation project funded completely by taxpayers.
“Electricians yesterday raised the alarm that they were again being exposed to loose asbestos fibers, which now has been confirmed by scientific testing,” said Electrical Trades Union (ETU) Secretary Dave McKinley.
According to the ETU, asbestos was first discovered two months ago in the wiring of the building causing 25 electricians to be exposed to deadly asbestos fibers.
“This issue was first identified two months ago, with SafeWork NSW issuing improvement notices to builder Laing O’Rourke giving the company seven days to remove the asbestos or eliminate the threat to workers through appropriate safety measures,” said McKinley.
Those electricians stopped their work, but Laing O’Rourke threatened them with prosecution in the Fair Work Commission. According to McKinley, “It’s pretty clear the system is broken when workers are threatened with legal action for refusing to expose themselves to a deadly substance like asbestos.”
Due to the latency period, many of the workers might not experience the effects of their exposure until their 60s.
“These guys won’t know for 15, 20, maybe 30 years if this exposure is actually fatal,” said McKinley. “Throughout my career, I’ve worked with people who have died from asbestos and it’s a horrible, horrible, miserable disease.”
Australia has a history of asbestos and mesothelioma. A 2016 study linked asbestos insulation to an increase in Australian mesothelioma cases. Although 25,000 Australians die from rare cancers like mesothelioma each year, it's home to one of the highest overall cancer survival rates in the world.
Australian mesothelioma survivors like Galy Vee are optimistic about the situation. Vee thinks the country needs to pull together to ban asbestos. She was exposed as a teenager working with her father at a dry cleaning factory.
“We have planned for the management of asbestos in known and unknown locations during the course of the Joan Sutherland Theatre upgrades and there is a comprehensive Asbestos Management Plan in place,” commented a spokesperson for Laing O’Rourke.
Asbestos is to be expected at the Sydney Opera House because many buildings made in the 1960s and 1970s used asbestos-contaminated construction materials. Construction on the structure began in March 1959 and was completed in October 1973.
Still nothing has been done on the builders’ part, so the union is demanding NSW Better Regulation Minister Matt Keen begin an investigation into why SafeWork hasn’t taken any action against Laing O’Rourke.
“It is completely unacceptable that workers, performers, and the general public continue to be exposed to a toxic substance at this iconic building,” stated McKinley.
Industrial Relations spokesman Adam Searle has called on Arts Minister Don Harwin to fulfill his “professional and moral obligation.” According to Searle, “Sadly, we do not want to see workers' safety put at risk because the State Government is rushing ahead without the proper risk assessments.”