6 Jun 2014

Asbestos plans were unclear in 2012

6:34 pm on 6 June 2014

WorkSafe and the Earthquake Commission (EQC) were still working out a final strategy for dealing with enclosure and encapulsation techniques for asbestos in ceilings two years into Canterbury's home repair programme.

Neither option is considered satisfactory, according to asbestos and demolition experts.

Emails obtained under the Official Information Act (OIA) show the two organisations were discussing how more clarity was needed about the problem until December 2012. Documents from WorkSafe show the agency was still formulating its approach to enclosure late into the rebuild.

WorkSafe and the Earthquake Commission were still working out how to deal with asbestos in December 2012.

WorkSafe and the Earthquake Commission were still working out how to deal with asbestos in December 2012. Photo: AAP

The Department of Labour's Francois Barton wrote to his colleagues on the 21 November 2012:

"Chaps, I'm conscious we have had discussions with EQC where we've signalled our sense of risk, and our degree of comfort/acceptance with enclosing asbestos ceilings via screwing.

"Things are now approaching a point where those discussions are becoming more formally stated positions, so I need some clarity on our levels of confidence and assurance regarding the two issues - is screwing gib acceptable and what's our assessment of the future risk?"

He goes on to say:

"...I know that X (the name has been blacked out) has expressed a view that the exposure levels in those future scenarios is likely to be quite small and that the commensurate risk of occupational disease reflects that. How confident is that view that the risk is 'very low'?"

Methods to control and contain asbestos in ceilings

Encapsulation is where a sealant is applied to a stippled finish to stop the asbestos fibres from being released into the environment, then it is painted over, sealed and lacquered.

Fletcher EQR said in a statement issued on Thursday

"Encapsulation is an acceptable repair strategy for ACM (asbestos containing materials) in residential properties across New Zealand, and is set out in the New Zealand Management of Asbestos Guidelines and the Health and Safety in Employment (Asbestos) Regulations 1998."

Enclosure is where the existing stipple ceiling which contains asbestos remains in place and a new ceiling is fixed to it to minimise someone subsequently being exposed to it.

Cut and drop is where the whole ceiling is removed, scraping the ceiling is another alternative.

Unresolved concerns

Another email to Mr Barton dated 15 March 2013, where it's not possible to identify the sender as the name is blacked out, is from someone within the Ministry of Health.

"EQC's approach to repairing homes with asbestos containing materials is consistent with MBIE's [Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment] guidelines and the Health and Safety Employment Act," it said.

"EQC have identified asbestos as one of their top 10 health and safety risks...we acknowledged however, that the risk for future home owners is a separate issue that has not yet been resolved."

A project manager for a company that manages repairs on behalf of Fletcher EQR told Radio New Zealand it has good processes now, but he said he was not convinced that asbestos was recognised as a potential problem early on in the rebuild.

"They cannot be confident that accidental exposure and contamination has not occurred in thousands of homes repaired in the rebuild simply because there was no systematic asbestos identification and testing process in place during 2010, 2011 and 2012."

He said during the first few years of the programme there was potential for very widespread exposure to low-level asbestos contamination.

However he said there can now be confidence that asbestos has been handled well - when it has been identified and then removed.

Fletcher EQR now puts out notices on safety and 'tool box talks' providing advice of different building skills and tasks in relation to asbestos.

Encapsulation or enclosure

An asbestos and demolition removal specialist who worked for Fletcher EQR in the rebuild for more than the first two years told Radio New Zealand that enclosure or removal is a lot more costly which is why encapsulation was more often used.

Chief executive of Fletcher Construction, Graham Darlow, which is overseeing the rebuild, told Morning Report on Thursday that encapsulation had not been used.

But shortly after the programme aired the company put out a statement saying that was wrong, and encapsulation had been used in the early stages of the rebuild.