'Living in fear': Workers' anger over asbestos safety breach
AT LEAST six Main Roads workers will spend the rest of their lives in fear of contracting a fatal illness after a state government department was found guilty of exposing them to asbestos.
Department of Main Roads RoadTek employees worked on a bridge site at Ripley for four months in 2012 before it was discovered the bridge, built more than 20 years ago, was riddled with asbestos and the fibres were already spread across the site.
More that six workers were given power tools and air grinders to demolish the bridge after a truck smashed into it in January 2012.
The department admitted to exposing the workers to asbestos but did not admit there was a risk the workers would be exposed to serious illness or death.
The department was convicted at trial in June of failing to comply with health and safety duty and fined $175,000 in Ipswich Magistrates Court yesterday.
The maximum penalty for the offence is $1.5 million.
The court heard there was no proper assessment of the hazards, the personal protection equipment was not adequate to eliminate the risks and there was no identification of asbestos in the project safety plans.
Industrial Relations prosecutor Sarah Cartledge said the department spent a significant amount of public money defending the charge and the penalty would be taken from the public pocket.
"The community needs to see that a government department is not immune to charges," Ms Cartledge said.
"Just because these workers haven't been exposed to injury yet doesn't mean they are not going to be exposed to emotional harm."
Defence lawyer Ben McMillan said the department employed tens of thousands of workers and had a vast number of work sites across the state, each with different hazards.
"There is a significant number especially considering this is the first time the department has been prosecuted under work place health and safety laws," he said.
"Soon after this the department took steps including working with the community and professionally cleaning the workers' houses, cars and clothes. There is no evidence any worker has suffered any injury or death."
He said the fine would be paid out of the department's $8 billion budget.
Magistrate Virginia Sturgess said the department provided an unfair working environment.
"They might not get the actual disease but they will spend the next 30 years wondering," she said.
Gary McDonaugh was one of the workers exposed to asbestos at the site and he said he did not receive any support and did not have his car or home cleaned after the exposure.
"It's not good when you work for them for 19 years and this is the way you get treated," Mr McDonaugh said.
"Nobody has ever come and approached me about it. They rung about my car - the day they were supposed to clean it, they said they could not fit me in so I did it myself.
"We've got grandchildren that have come to my house and travelled in my car. It's always on my mind."
He said he felt for his colleagues who were exposed to the same risks.
"The questions were asked before we were stopped working but we were told to keep on going," he said.
Mr McDonaugh and wife Chris said they would consider group legal action arising from the incident.
"It wasn't long after that job finished that we were put off.
"I feel sick to my stomach just listening to it. It stresses me out. As far as them helping me, what a joke."
Mrs McDonaugh said the family had not been offered any support or resources.
"I'm not very happy with it because they said there was counselling and cleaning and we had none of that," she said.
No conviction was recorded.
- Asbestosis is a chronic inflammatory and scarring disease affecting the tissue of the lungs. People with the condition may experience severe shortness of breath and are at an increased risk for certain cancers, including lung cancer and, less commonly, mesothelioma, which is almost universally fatal.
- There is no known safe level of exposure and the longer someone is exposed, the greater the risk of related illness.