According to one of the country’s leading labor unions, workers at a liquefied natural gas plant in the state of Western Australia were exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos. An independent laboratory confirmed that several contractors worked with grinding gaskets within the facility that contained high concentrations of asbestos fibers into the air. The state’s union secretary, Steve McCartney, said that up to eight workers from the engineering company Monadelphus were directly exposed to the asbestos, while several others were indirectly exposed.
The plant was under the control of Woodside Petroleum, one of the leading oil and natural gas exploration and production firms in Australia. McCartney stated that the lack of precautions against asbestos exposure in place at the Woodside facility placed workers in a hazardous environment by failing to check whether the materials in the gaskets contained asbestos. The gasket material was imported from nearby New Zealand. Independent tests confirmed that the gaskets contained two varieties of asbestos: chrysotile (white) and amosite (brown).
McCartney also said that the work that went into creating the gasket material should have been conducted in Australia, a country with strict regulations on asbestos exposure and worker safety issues. He claimed the reasons Woodside was in favor of importing the materials comes down to putting “short-term profits” ahead of “long-term [worker] safety.” He called the actions of Woodside executives a “disgrace” for not instituting proper “checks and balances” in the importation process.
McCartney stated that leaders with his organization, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, have sent a letter to Woodside officials requesting the details behind the procedures for importing gasket material, as well as assurances and processes from the company as to how they will prevent future asbestos exposure incidents. In the meantime, he has asked the affected workers to register with the country’s Asbestos Diseases Society, which tests and treats workers exposed to asbestos.
A spokesman with Woodside acknowledged that some of the gaskets used in its Pluto LNG project in the Pibara area of the state did contain compressed asbestos fibers. The spokesman also said that the company is in the process of removing the asbestos-laced gaskets. Company quality inspectors are investigating the site and have instituted a quarantine of the affected area.
The company has reached an agreement with a local contracting firm that specializes in asbestos removal and remediation. The workers will remove the asbestos-contaminated gaskets and carry out air quality tests on the site. After the inspectors have determined that the site is safe, company executives and union leaders will discuss when they can restart the project.
After widespread use of asbestos throughout the country during the early and middle years of the twentieth century, Australia has seen a steep rise in the number of cases of asbestos-related lung diseases. The most severe of these diseases is pleural mesothelioma, a form of cancer that attacks the fluid lining of the lungs. Patients with mesothelioma typically live less than two years after their initial diagnosis. Observers of the building trades in Australia expect the number of mesothelioma cases in the country to continue to rise over the next twenty years.
Sources: Australian Broadcasting Company, Sydney Morning Herald