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Three in four tradies admit they find it difficult to identify asbestos on the job and new apprentices aren’t being taught how to, WA’s building industry has been warned.
There are now moves to make asbestos identification part of apprentice training after a workshop at which the alarm was raised last month. The push is supported by the Master Builders Association and Housing Industry Association.
A Curtin University survey of 240 carpenters, painters, plumbers and electricians indicated only small numbers had received training related to asbestos. For example, only 17 per cent of electricians had received training. Electricians and plumbers are considered to be most at risk from exposure.
MBA (WA) construction director Kim Richardson said he was worried for apprentices.
“They are entering the workforce with little knowledge of the dangers of asbestos,” he said. “Previous generations grew up with the knowledge that it was unsafe and were able to influence their colleagues. Now many those tradies who imparted the knowledge are retiring and awareness is declining.”
Builder Dale Alcock, whose father died from mesothelioma, said a ban on asbestos products in Australia had created a “false comfort that the building industry lacks asbestos. But that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.
Dr Peter Franklin, a senior research fellow in Population and Public Health at the University of Western Australia said asbestos remained abundant in WA, because so much of it was used in buildings and other products before 1990. “Asbestos is not going to go away in our lifetime at least, because there is just so much of it,” said Dr Franklin, who spoke at the workshop.
Mr Alcock wanted to see “white card” training updated.
“We have what is called the safety white card in WA,” he said. “All construction workers in either commercial or residential (building) should have an approved white card. There needs to be a review of the asbestos elements within the white card training, so that it is generic … what we’d like to see is a contemporary training module put in there that talks about assessment, identification and correct handling of asbestos.”
Jo Morris is equally determined to see apprentice training updated. With her father Barry Knowles, who died last year from mesothelioma, she established Reflections Through Reality in 2015. The foundation funds research into a cure for the disease, supporting sufferers and promoting awareness.
Ms Morris, whose research was the catalyst for last month’s workshop, said asbestos training was only mandatory for building workers in the ACT.
“With WA’s history of asbestos, and the fact that we have the highest rates of asbestos-related disease in the world, there is an opportunity for WA to lead by example,” she said.
“The majority of our apprentices have been graduating with an inadequate understanding of asbestos, even though they are at highest risk … The typical age of first exposure to asbestos in WA is 23 — hence the need to target the younger demographic.”
Ms Morris said too many tradies had a “she’ll be right mate” attitude to asbestos.
“The motivation for me is exactly the same as Jo,” Mr Alcock added. “My father died of mesothelioma as Jo’s father did. It’s a horrible death and you can’t do anything other than watch loved ones decline, so the more that we can make that next generation and current generation aware of it, hopefully the less incidence there is of it.”