4 Nov 2013

Asbestos fears in Canterbury rebuild

8:46 pm on 4 November 2013

The head of safety for the Canterbury rebuild says it is very concerning that inspectors are picking up instances of asbestos daily.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is urging everyone working on any site where asbestos is a possibility to make sure that it is accurately identified.

Last week, the ministry laid two charges under the Health and Safety Act against two companies for exposing staff to asbestos while they were working on the roof of Christchurch Hospital, and is investigating another five cases.

Most buildings that were constructed before 1980 - the vast majority of those being demolished because of earthquake damage - are likely to contain some form of asbestos.

Kathryn Heiler, the ministry's rebuild health and safety programme director, says it is concerning that the risks aren't being taking seriously.

Ms Heiler says her team gets complaints and notifications weekly about improperly identified asbestos and too many people are taking a punt about whether it is or isn't, rather than getting it tested to be sure.

"It's really important that the guesswork is taken out of this, and our concern is that there something is going wrong in too many cases, in our view, around a failure to properly identify."

Ms Heiler says there is absolutely no reason for the failures of identification in so many cases and warns that inspectors will be tougher, where appropriate, from now on.

Canterbury's Medical Officer of Health Dr Alistair Humphrey says the recent quakes have claimed enough lives already without a second wave of asbestos-related deaths decades in the future.

"It may be as much as four decades later. So a young man in their 20s, if they're not taking care at this time, might find that when they're late middle age might find themselves with a very serious illness that otherwise they would've avoided."