Sunshine Sugar, which operates three sugar mills in northern NSW, has been issued with a series of safety rectification notices after a union investigation found broken and badly degraded asbestos sheeting was potentially exposing workers and the public to the risk of inhaling deadly asbestos fibres.
Union officials conducted safety inspections of the company’s Condong, Broadwater and Harwood mills after workers raised concerns that management had failed to respond to their concerns in relation to the presence of dangerous, friable asbestos fibres.
The Electrical Trades Union said the inspection located a number of serious asbestos safety breaches, including: broken asbestos pieces on the ground in public access areas next to the Broadwater mill; corrugated asbestos sheeting that contained holes, cracks, and visible asbestos fibres; and broken asbestos sheeting in a lunchroom that had simply been covered with clear contact sheets rather than being properly remediated.
As a result of the inspections, a number of safety rectification notices were issued under the Work Health and Safety Act regarding asbestos safety breaches at the Condong and Broadwater mills.
ETU secretary Dave McKinley said the company had been notified by workers of their asbestos concerns last month but had failed to act, with the CEO claiming it was because the wrong form had been used.
“Even a tiny exposure to asbestos fibres, which lodge deep in the lungs, can be enough to cause deadly cancers and other debilitating asbestos-related diseases,” Mr McKinley said.
“That’s why it is so concerning that Sunshine Sugar management have failed to properly address very visible safety issues that have not only been putting their workforce at risk, but also the general public.
“Both the Condong and Broadwater mills are constructed with large amounts of asbestos cement sheeting, but natural weathering and age have resulted in these products breaking down, releasing friable asbestos fibres which can easily become airborne and be inhaled.
“In the short term, the company needs to immediately remove the damaged products, but they also need to move towards a plan for full asbestos removal and remediation to avoid similar incidents occurring in future.
“Australia’s industrial use of asbestos has left a deadly legacy, with 600 people dying each year from the aggressive lung cancer mesothelioma alone, while thousands more are diagnosed with other asbestos-related diseases.
“The danger of asbestos is well know, and companies like Sunshine Sugar that know their workplaces contain extensive quantities of aging asbestos products have a legal and moral obligation to protect their employees and the neighbouring communities from this very foreseeable risk.
“We have also been disappointed that management tried to pass the blame for their failure onto staff, with the CEO claiming the reason no action was taken was because a worker used the incorrect form to report the issue.