Nineteen potential asbestos incidents have been identified at Queensland schools after works began as part of the state government’s program to install air-conditioning in school buildings.
Of the incidents since the beginning of the program, 12 have been notifiable.
Education Department director-general Tony Cook explained that his understanding “is where those cases required notification, particularly to workplace health and safety, they were done, and in some cases, they weren’t required to be notified because they were discovery rather than actual disturbance.”
“To the best of my knowledge where each of the asbestos incidents have occurred, staff at the school level have done everything in their best endeavours to make sure the issue is notified, they’re either dealing with that at the school level with the individual contractor or they’re actually notifying it directly to the department.”
Mr Cook also said that the Queensland government was contributing significant investments into asbestos management, with an allocation of at least $36 million this year alone, focusing on asbestos replacement identification.
In July of 2020, Aus Safe Consulting recommended the QLD Education Department require asbestos management plans for each scall, and all site asbestos registers have audits to ensure the accuracy of information.
The recommendations also noted that schools should have a better system for indicating the presence of asbestos, instead of “just displaying a notice sign at the reception office of the school”.
The Education Department updated their asbestos management plan in June this year, and noted that a single sign at the administration office of a school – in addition to other measures – “sufficiently addresses the Queensland legislative requirements”.
Mr Cook explained that the department had recently introduced additional safety measures, including having contractors acknowledge that they had reviewed asbestos registers and noted their training and obligations.
“We have deployed asbestos warning labels for air-conditioning installations across the Cooler Cleaner Schools Program to identify products with ACM, so we physically put stickers on walls where there might be air conditioners to be installed to advise the contractors that there is potentially asbestos-containing material in those walls,” Mr Cook said.
In November last year, an incident raised the concern of the Education Department and members of the school community when an asbestos breach was reported at Sunnybank State High School.
That incident saw a school cleaner report concerns to the deputy principal on November 9, worried that contractors had drilled into asbestos sheeting during the installation of air conditioning at the school.
WHS QLD inspected the site on November 26 and on the same day, a professional clean up crew was sent to the site. Parents were notified the next day.
But it wasn’t until November 26 that the school was inspected by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland and a professional clean-up crew dispatched.
Despite the criticism, Minister Grace Grace has said that she believed that necessary action was taken as soon as it became apparent.
“You have to understand any school built before 1990 will have asbestos-containing material,” she said.
“I take the matter of asbestos extremely seriously.
“You may want to split hairs about when things were done and when they weren’t, but I am satisfied that as soon as we became aware of asbestos-containing material and disturbance the department did all that it could to ensure the safety of everyone in that community and I expect nothing less.”