WorkSafe aims to reduce asbestos deaths

In New Zealand, an estimated 170 people die of asbestos-related diseases each year – the largest single cause of work related deaths. To address this, WorkSafe New Zealand has recently announced that it is aiming to halve the number of deaths from asbestos within the next 10 years.

To achieve that goal, WorkSafe plans to increase the number of inspectors who are trained for asbestos detection, and increase the number of staff working exclusively on health issues. These plans are consistent with the organisation’s renewed focus on workplace health issues outlined in its recent Strategic Plan for Work-Related Health 2016 to 2026, which can be found here. Worksafe’s focus on asbestos is also evident in its Prosecution Policy (May 2016), which mentions reducing asbestos related diseases as a specific goal.

This is just the latest in a serious of steps taken to help manage the risks posed by the material, including a government ban on the importation of any products containing asbestos from October 2016 and an increased regulatory focus on asbestos with the recent Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2016, which are more stringent and prescriptive than the previous regulations. These recent changes have largely been a response to criticism of the previous regulatory regime which lagged behind countries like Australia.

WorkSafe’s focus on asbestos signals an important change for the regulator that organisations should be aware of. As a general rule, any building constructed, altered, or refurbished between the 1940s and 1990 is likely to contain asbestos. Generally, asbestos-containing materials are safe when solid and in good condition, but as they age and deteriorate or are otherwise disturbed or damaged (for example by earthquake, demolition, or repair work) the risk of asbestos fibres being released into the air increases, and it may pose a risk to workers and others in the vicinity.

The pervasiveness of asbestos means organisations with a responsible approach to minimising asbestos-related risks to their workers and others affected by their workplaces will want to ensure they have a suitable policy to assess and manage asbestos in their workplaces.

It also means that there is a real risk of investigation and liability for organisations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 and related regulations.

Practical measures can be taken to mitigate potential asbestos risks, such as:

  • investigating whether a building has asbestos-containing materials and if so where, how much, and what state it is in;
  • making and updating an asbestos register;
  • obtaining suitable expert advice as to recommended remedial work and/or further monitoring; and
  • preserving relevant records to assist in any future claims or investigations.

Organisations that are aware that their premises contain asbestos-containing materials should make sure that anyone who may come into contact with the asbestos-containing material, such as contractors, are informed of its presence before starting work, and that appropriate steps are taken to eliminate or minimise any potential risk.

We would be happy to assist you with developing policies and practices to manage any potential risks from asbestos that your organisation may face.