Thursday, July 16 2015

By Jane Goldsmith

Alcoa’s Kwinana refinery site, where asbestos was found in a roof tank. Image: Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union

ALCOA has been hit by allegations that its workforce was exposed to asbestos in two separate incidents in the past eight weeks.

WA’s three largest workers’ unions – the Electrical Trades Union of Australia, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union – called for an urgent asbestos audit of Alcoa’s WA operations, after workers discovered a covering they were grinding at Alcoa’s Pinjarra refinery, south of Perth, was partially made of asbestos.

The incident followed a similar situation at the company’s Kwinana refinery, when a welder noticed a white powdery substance on some insulation tape in a tank roof. The substance tested positive for asbestos.

Alcoa said that once reported, work immediately ceased in the affected areas, and steps were taken for a licensed asbestos removal contractor to sample and inspect the workplaces.

Alcoa’s health and chief medical director Dr Michael Donoghue further stated the risk of any health impact was ‘extremely low’ due to the limited amount of the material, the type of asbestos contained in the material, and the short duration of the task.

However, the unions rejected Alcoa’s assurances, arguing dozens of workers – including both company employees and Downer contractors – were potentially exposed to the substance before the company reacted.

“Verbal assurances are not good enough,” AMWU representative Simon Rushworth said.

“Nothing that Downer and Alcoa workers have been doing at these sites is emergency work; it’s all pre-planned so there is no excuse for what has happened.

“There is a lingering fear among the families of what could happen 20 or 40 years in future.”

WA’s Department of Mines has recommended a set procedure for Alcoa and its contractors adhere to before any maintenance work, including mandatory audits of paperwork against the WA asbestos register.