Detection of asbestos imports have tripled over the past year, and unions are threatening to ban working with materials from offending countries until the federal government takes decisive action.

In a Senate Estimates hearing, Australian Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg revealed that officers had found 40 cargo shipments with asbestos-containing materials over the past 10 months, three times the figure found over the entire 2015-16 year.

While the higher figures may be down to a large increase in the number of tests the ABF has conducted on incoming materials, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union is up in arms about the lack of prosecutions for importing potentially deadly materials.

“Border Force can’t inspect every shipment which comes into the country and that’s why offenders should have the book thrown at them in order to send a message and change behaviour,” CFMEU Construction and general national secretary Dave Noonan said.

Mr Noonan is threatening to ban its members working with some materials from “certain countries” until border protection minister Peter Dutton takes action.

Despite the increases in detections, the CFMEU said Border Force had only applied three financial penalties for importing asbestos, and there had been no court-imposed fines or costs, and no revocations or suspensions of licences.

A recent Border Force-commissioned report found that the lack of prosecutions was down to “mistake of fact” defences, where importers rely upon overseas testing facility reports to argue that they thought a material was asbestos-free. However, some countries have different standards of defining “asbestos free”, meaning the material can still be present.

Construction firm Yuanda, which admitted responsibility for importing asbestos-tainted building materials that found their way into the Perth Children’s Hospital, has still not faced any charges.

“When it comes to Yuanda, this should be an open and shut case,” Mr Noonan said.

“If this soft touch approach to prosecutions continues we’ll have no choice but to consider banning certain building products from certain countries on health and safety grounds until Minister Dutton is willing to take decisive action.”

The Queensland government recently announced changes to better deal with non-complaint building materials.

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