Australia is setting its sights on a strategy to remove more than 6 million tonnes of asbestos from the built environment over the next 40 years.

On Friday, a meeting of Commonwealth and State workplace health and safety ministers welcomed the recently released Phase 3 Asbestos National Strategic Plan 2024-2030 which was developed by the Asbestos and Silica Safety and Eradication Agency (ASSEA).

The ministers committed to working toward the endorsement of the plan by 19 June or as close as possible to that date.

The ministers have also:

  • requested that Safe Work Australia work with ASSEA to consider relevant actions set out in the plan to incorporate the plan into its own work plan once endorsed; and
  • agreed to meet annually to discuss yearly progress against the plan.

The latest developments come as Australia is undertaking a mammoth task to eradicate asbestos from its built environment.

Asbestos was widely used in Australia prior to being phased out from the 1980s onward and completely banned in 2003.

Prior to the ban, asbestos containing materials (ACMs) were used in more than 3,000 products including construction materials and vehicles.

Despite no longer being used, asbestos remains present in many older buildings that were constructed before the 1990s.

Many of these buildings are now 30-100 years old, meaning that risks of exposure are increasing as products which contain the material begin to degrade.

All up, around 4,000 Australians die from asbestos related diseases each year.

In total, there are more than 6 million tonnes of the material remaining in the built environment. This includes a presence in one in every three homes.

The developments also come amid community outrage after asbestos containing mulch was found at seven community parks in Melbourne and has been uncovered at 75 sites across New South Wales including seven schools.

Commenced in 2014, the Asbestos National Strategic Plan aims to provide a phased approach to eliminating asbestos-related diseases in Australia through consistent and coordinated actions.

The first two phases focused on establishing an evidence base to understand the asbestos legacy and increasing awareness and supporting the more effective management and removal of asbestos containing materials.

The third phase aims to build on this and focus on practical measures to support the safe removal of aging asbestos containing materials.

In this stage, the plan also aims to support those who are impacted by asbestos related diseases and facilitate Australia’s role in campaigning for an international asbestos ban.

All up, the third stage plan involves 44 actions across nine areas.

The nine areas include:

  • development of a robust and standardised process to identify the presence, location and condition of ACMs
  • interventions to prioritise the safe removal of ACMs, increase asbestos removal rates and effectively control exposure risks until asbestos is able to be safely removed
  • ensuring safe and effective transport and disposal of asbestos and preventing illegal dumping by providing safe and accessible waste disposal options and ensuring that asbestos waste can be tracked from removal to disposal
  • ensuring early detection of asbestos related diseases by increasing the number of healthcare professionals who are trained in the diagnosis of such diseases
  • better supporting people who are impacted by asbestos related diseases by ensuring that people have timely access to services
  • improving asbestos diagnostic, therapeutic and other treatment methods through more funding for research into asbestos related diseases
  • developing capacity and awareness in neighbouring countries in South-East Asia.
  • undertaking international advocacy to support campaigns to ban the production and trade of asbestos and ACMs; and
  • improving the capability of Australian Border Force to enforce Australia’s asbestos import ban and to work with other regulators to effectively trace imports that have entered Australia.

According to the plan, benefits associated with full implementation will be substantial.

A 2023 report prepared by Urbis indicates that full implementation of asbestos management and removal options under the plan will prevent up to 28,000 deaths between now and 2100.

By contrast, around 1 million tonnes of asbestos will remain in Australia’s built environment by 2060 should removal rates remain as they are.

The moves to endorse the plan have backing from unions and public health advocacy groups.

In a joint statement issued prior to the meeting, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and fifteen different health and asbestos related groups publicly called for the phase 3 plan to be endorsed.


More Action on Engineered Stone Ban

As well as consideration of the asbestos plan, ministers also endorsed the technical amendments to model work, health and safety regulations to give effect to the previously announced prohibition on the use of engineered stone.

The amendments reflect earlier decisions of ministers to ban the use of engineered stone – a move that is intended to help to protect workers from silicosis.

Endorsement of the amendments now paves the way for each state and territory to implement the ban into their own work, health and safety regulations.

The ban will come into effect on 1 July 2024, although some jurisdictions will provide a transition period to enable certain work with engineered stone to continue until the end to the year.


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