Materials imported from China which contain asbestos are creating new areas of danger for workers within the construction sector as well as home owners and building occupants, unions and workplace safety experts warn.

Following media reports of asbestos-containing materials being found on more than 50 sites across the country, Electrical Trades Union spokesman Lachlan Williams said the union was alarmed at the situation, and feared that what was being reported may in fact be the ‘tip of the iceberg.’

“Our position is very clear,” Williams said. “There has been a ban on the importation of asbestos in any form since 2003. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos and it represents a significant danger. It’s extremely disappointing to see repeated breaches of the asbestos importation ban. It puts all tradespeople who work with these materials at risk. It also puts members of the public at risk for many years.”

Williams said allowing those who import and export materials to ‘self-certify’ that materials are asbestos free creates a situation of inadequate levels of oversight.

He says the union would like to see independent certification, meaningful levels of oversight and materials that have been certified at the point of export actually inspected to ensure they are indeed asbestos-free.

Williams expressed anger that problems were still occurring in this area.

“We are seeing materials containing a deadly substance that has been banned from importation into Australia for more than a decade entering the country and putting at risk workers, tradespeople and members of the public,” he said.

Williams’ comments follow ABC reports in mid-February which quote Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency CEO Peter Tighe as indicating that he was aware of as many as 64 work sites were known to contain asbestos-tainted concrete fibre sheeting that has been used in construction.

A Senate Inquiry into imported products which do not conform to local standards under the Building Code of Australia is set to report on March 16.

Workplace safety expert and founder of safety systems provider Systems on a Shoestring Emma Bentton said imported materials were creating a significant health and safety management risk for employers in the construction sector.

Bentton said the problem was not new and alarm bells should have been raised after recalls of 25,000 Great Wall and Chery Chinese cars after asbestos was found in the engine and exhaust gaskets in 2012 and earlier thousands of toys were recalled after being found to contain lead paint – both of which got through customs.

She said construction firms should double check everything and not rely on assurances from importers that materials coming in were free from asbestos.

Bentton said imported asbestos was "absolutely" a significant emerging safety problem.

“And what its saying is that we might be buying things that say their compliant out of China but the onus is now on us to double check that," she said. “I take it back to almost a quality issue, test it, before you give yourself a safety problem.”

  • It's an absolute disgrace that these kinds of crappy, hazardous products are still imported, let alone wiely emloyed, in the Australian construction industry.

    • The silly thing is that it is so easy to get your stuff tested. When we started importing from China we always took some samples and get them checked at an independent lab. Cost $50 per test which is a very small insurance against being sued for millions to remove, replace and dispose of contaminated material

  • There is ample evidence of 'pragmatic substitution' of dangerous products as a component of other products imported to justify ongoing independent testing. As Phil points out, testing is relatively cheap and not a deterrent for companies with genuine concern for public safety. There was a case a few years ago where asbestos was being used as a filler for drilling muds imported from China – the practice needs to be considered potentially widespread and the lack of independent scrutiny flags Australia as a country to use as a destination for getting rid of such products as a 'filler'.
    It really doesn't matter if the intent is malicious or as a result of ignorance – we know it happens and the only way to stop it is to create a routine of independent testing and substantial penalties for local companies responsible for importing. Ignorance should not be taken as an excuse given the practice and potential risks well known.