Rail Asbestos Removal Project Puts Workers at Risk

The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union made claims that workers are being put at risk by a project that involves removing asbestos from thousands of FMG’s rail carriages. The mining giant FMG denies these claims.

Union Claims Workers Put at Risk

According to the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, mechanics who typically service and repair carriage clutches, were at unacceptably high risk for exposure to asbestos.

In 2017, FMG discovered asbestos in the friction wear plates of rail carriages it imported from China. FMG then reported the discovery to WorkSafe, who responded by furnishing FMG with an improvement notice, stating that they have to remove the asbestos within two years or by November 2019.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union assistant state secretary, Glenn McLaren, inspected the facility where the FMG is conducting the asbestos removal process. Upon completion of his inspection, he found that the asbestos removal process is not taking place quickly enough, and that and that the manner in which the removal is taking place is putting the workers’ health at risk.

According to McLaren, the FMG has allowed countless workers to be exposed to asbestos inhalation over the years, and that is a disgrace. The workers, as well as the union, filed multiple reports and complaints, but the FMG disregarded the safety of its workforce, nonetheless. They even claim that carriages containing asbestos in their friction wear plates are still in operation and exposing workers to asbestos inhalation, endangering their lives.

In response, FMG’s chief executive officer, Elizabeth Gaines, said that the mining giant prioritised the safe removal of the asbestos in the carriage’s friction wear plates from the moment the fibres were discovered.

She said that the first friction plate was replaced on the 3rd of October 2018 after extensive consultation with industry regulators and the workers themselves. According to Gaines, FMG also employed the services of an expert contractor to complete the work safely and thoroughly.

Since FMG started the asbestos removal project in October 2018, the asbestos in 958 of the 3,384 carriages had the asbestos in their friction wear plates safely removed. Gaines also said that they are well on their way to meet the terms of WorkSafe’s improvement notice which gave them until September 2019 to remove all the asbestos from the carriage wear plates.

In addition to hiring an expert contractor, FMG also hired an asbestos-certified consultant to oversee the entire project. According to Gaines, the independent oversight played a crucial role in mitigating the risk of asbestos exposure from the start. In addition, the independent consultant also provided periodic monitoring to ensure that FMG followed the protocol to ensure that the risk of fibre inhalation was as low as possible.

After completion of asbestos removal from all the carriages’ friction wear plates, FMG is planning on continuing periodic monitoring for at least twelve months to ensure that there are no residual asbestosis or exposure to it.

Where was the Asbestos Discovered?

The asbestos was found in friction wear plates located in the suspension systems of the rail carriages purchased between 2007 and 2014. These rail carriages were imported from China.

The Chinese put asbestos in the clutches. This is because asbestos has specific properties that provide the correct amount of friction while doing a good job of resisting heat. In this application, the fibres are bound together, and the material is, in essence, safe as the asbestos fibres are not airborne. With time and usage, the fibres become friable and, as a result, they become airborne, and the risk for inhalation by workers increases.

Modern carriage friction wear plates consist of fibreglass and not asbestos. The entity that purchased the carriage has to actively arrange testing for asbestos as the presence of this hazardous fibrous material is not apparent.

How is the Asbestos Being Removed?

FMG claim that they were following the correct practices to remove the asbestos from the carriages’ friction wear plates. Despite this, Glenn McLaren from the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ union says that one of the most significant problems he found was that workers had lacking decontamination facilities.

McLaren also says that, after a shift, the workers were hosing themselves down with water using a spray that operates with a hand pump, not unlike the type gardeners typically use. Also, workers that were active near the place where the asbestos was removed from the carriages were not furnished with sufficient protective gear to prevent inhalation.

According to McLaren, the bunded zone that separated the asbestos removal zone from the other work areas were “two witches’ hats with a bit of tape over it.”

According to the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Association, a grave concern is that some of their members maintained the affected carriages for around a decade without any surveillance or monitoring. Since health issues associated with asbestos can take some time before showing, the causal effects of the lacking decontamination facilities and asbestos removal circumstances may not be apparent in due course.

The union and workers feel that FMG did not follow the proper procedure for removing asbestos. The method for asbestos removal generally consists of four stages: namely area preparation, dust control, personal protective clothing and equipment, and clean-up and waste removal.

Preparation involves adding a wetting agent to the water to control the development of dust clouds, placing new drop sheets on the floor, and setting up new barriers and portable enclosures. Throughout the process, no compressed air may be used, and workers must not be permitted to eat, drink, or smoke in the vicinity.

Upon completion of the asbestos removal process or a shift, the workers should have access to a decontamination facility that adheres to all relevant safety standards. A decontamination facility should consist of three rooms: a clean room, a shower room, and an equipment room.

A worker may only remove their safety equipment when finished with the decontamination process in the equipment room. All safety and protective equipment including coveralls, footwear, hard hats, goggles, and EPA-approved respirators should also be decontaminated.

Dust control is an essential stage as it allows for complete control at the source. It also places a barrier between the workers and the asbestos. With effective dust control, it is also possible to implement hygiene measures and procedure.

Dust control consists of wetting, the use of drop sheets, local exhaust ventilation through a fibre dust filter, and maintaining negative air pressure.

What does WorkSafe Recommend?

Although Australia banned asbestos for use in 2003, there are still several countries around the world that use asbestos in the plant components, building products, and materials that they export to countries such as Australia. Another difficulty is that these countries often classify their products as “asbestos free,” even if there is a significant presence of asbestos contained in the unit.

As a result, a certification that importers furnish to suppliers in accordance with local law is often unreliable. The warning that WorkSafe issued stated that the carriages were only thought to be asbestos-free and, since these carriages were relatively new, most of them were probably not replaced to date.

The warning also noted that a laboratory in Australia that is accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities found that the friction wear plates contained chrysolite (white asbestos). WorkSafe also issued a warning notice to other entities that contain several general recommendations. WorkSafe warned other entities that own or operates rail carriages they purchased between 2007 and 2014 to conduct asbestos testing and asbestos removal if necessary.

If a business identifies asbestos in materials at workplaces, and if the materials were not in situ before 31 December 2003, they should inform WorkSafe immediately, and formulate a plan to remove the materials that contain asbestos.

Importers that purchase capital goods, products, and materials from countries that don’t currently ban the production of asbestos should be familiar with the with all the different standards and definitions that apply to asbestos and the output thereof in the country of origin. In this case of FMG, the nation of origin was China.

WorkSafe also recommended that the entities should obtain product testing results from the foreign supplier to ascertain that the products or materials do not contain any asbestos. The asbestos testing should be carried out by laboratories that are accredited by an authority that is the overseas equivalent of the National Association of Testing Authorities. Also, businesses should also arrange for the independent testing of plant components or building products for the presence of asbestos before the initial shipment to Australia.

If there are multiple shipments of the same product from a foreign country where the use of asbestos is not prohibited, the business will have to arrange for random testing for additional to ensure that subsequent batches are also free of asbestos.

In Summary:

The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union has accused FMG of knowingly exposing workers to asbestos via Chinese friction wear plates in rail carriages it imported. FMG contends that they followed protocol, and the asbestos clean-up is on track.