12 September 2012 — The recently announced national register of asbestos risk finally raises this critical issue to something approaching that which it deserves. And yet its handling and disposal still has problems.

We cannot underestimate the risk this material poses. One fibre can kill you. There is no safe level of exposure. These facts demand drastic protective measures, and while much progress has been made, there are still gaps and loose ends.

In NSW, WorkCover controls the asbestos risk to workers on site. If asbestos or its dust leaves the site, even if windborne, the responsibility is transferred to the local council and possibly the Environmental Protection Authority, depending upon what happens and where. This in itself is problematic – government agencies are notorious for dropping things between the gaps, especially between tiers.

There is still another problem. There is no easy or certain way for anyone outside of the contractual chain to know if all asbestos has been removed from a site, or if the necessary certification of its removal has been issued. This means the dust blowing from that demolition next door might contain asbestos, or it might not, but the only way you can find out is by asking the head contractor to show you the certificate. He is under no obligation to do so, and even with the best will in the world on the contractor’s part, it takes time. Meanwhile you, your family, your fellow workers, the kindy up the road, may have been blanketed in asbestos laden dust. This is not sensationalism – it happens, albeit less frequently than it used to.

I suggest all state governments urgently address this issue by requiring a “green flag” display at the site entrance. This green flag would be a green corflute board issued by WorkCover, with a weatherproof clear slip-in window holding a copy of the certificate, similar to the development notices already used by many councils. This way, any passer-by or adjoining neighbour, can see at a glance that the asbestos risk has been reduced as far as practicable.

There is no way we can confidently predict when all remaining asbestos will be removed and disposed of safely. Until such a time comes, we cannot be too vigilant. A simple green flag displaying certification which already should already be in the contractor’s hands is a painless but important strategy.

Dick Clarke is principal of Envirotecture Pty Ltd and an accredited building designer, focusing exclusively on ecologically sustainable and culturally appropriate buildings. A multi-award winning designer, he holds a Master of Sustainable Futures degree by research from the Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS, on the topic on the effect of state and local planning instruments on the sustainability of the built environment. He is also a past president of the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors.