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Asbestos Find Again Halts Work at Opera House

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Workers tasked with the $200 million refurbishment of the Sydney Opera House have walked off the job for the second time after again reportedly being exposed to asbestos.

Electrical workers downed tools on Friday morning and refused to install cable through the iconic building after it was confirmed potentially deadly asbestos had been found, the Electrical Trades Union said in a statement.

Samples collected on Wednesday contained friable asbestos which can crumble into powder making it easier to inhale or ingest.

The discovery comes after asbestos was discovered in an accessibility tunnel in the Joan Sutherland Theatre prompting a similar halt to work in August this year.

"Two months after this major safety issue was uncovered, and the builder was ordered to rectify it by the safety regulator, we have again seen workers exposed to these carcinogenic fibres," ETU secretary Dave McKinley said in a statement.

There were two unexpected finds of asbestos this week, a spokeswoman for builder Laing O'Rourke told AAP in a statement.

"All procedures as defined in our asbestos management plan have been followed in consultation with the hygienist and the licensed asbestos removal company," the spokeswoman said.

The theatre construction site is now being inspected and all suspect materials submitted for testing before work resumes, Laing O'Rourke said.

SafeWork NSW confirmed it had been notified of the discovery.

It said workers had been wearing protective clothing when the asbestos was uncovered and, as a result, were not exposed.

"A prohibition notice was not issued as work had already ceased," a Safework NSW spokesperson said in a statement.

"However, SafeWork NSW inspectors are monitoring the situation closely and will take any action necessary to ensure the health and safety of the workers involved in the construction work."

The Sydney Opera House launched an investigation after the discovery in August and the builder subsequently obtained a clearance certificate declaring the site safe.

The August incident also resulted in a call by the Australian government’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency for a national program of removal, rather than management of the deadly material.

At the time, the Agency’s CEO, Peter Tighe, said that while there were regulations in place to manage asbestos in buildings and avoid risk to human health, the management regime clearly failed on that and other occasions to protect people from harmful exposure.

“There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos. It is unacceptable that 25 workers were exposed for a week before authorities were informed and steps put in place to protect the workers,” Mr Tighe said

“The regulations to protect people working in buildings require an asbestos register, a management plan, appraisal of areas where asbestos is identified, and removal of high risk asbestos before workers go in.

“There is clearly a breakdown of the system and it has failed in the duty of care for workers at the Sydney Opera House this week. Next week, it will be somewhere else.”

He said that with the levels of asbestos that are known to exist in Australian buildings, there will continue to be instances where workers and home renovators are exposed.

 “We really need to move from management of asbestos to a proactive program of removing high risk asbestos from Australian buildings.

“We need to instigate removal programs right across the board – from homes and both Government and privately owned buildings.”

Asbestos is also on the radar for the Senate Inquiry into Non-Conforming Building Products, with the Inquiry  slated to release an interim report this month on asbestos in building products.


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