The ACT Government has moved to close a loophole that has allowed builders to remove up to 10-square-metres of bonded asbestos from homes, a rule the Government says has been widely misunderstood and abused.
From January 1, any asbestos removal, including bonded asbestos sheeting, must be done by licensed asbestos removalists, who will now come under the control of Worksafe.
Builders were never allowed under the law to remove even 10-square-metres without asbestos training, but Work Safety Commissioner Mark McCabe said the training requirement was the most widely flouted.
"The 10-square-metre rule is actually significantly misunderstood. Tradesmen think it means they can remove up to 10-square-metres of asbestos without controls, that's not true," he said.
Worksafe had also come across builders who treated the 10-square-metre rule as a daily limit, rather than a limit for the entire job, as it was supposed to be.
"It's hard to know whether they don't realise or choose not to realise," Mr McCabe said. "One of the arguments sometimes put to us is 'I only removed 9-square-metres and I did 9-square-metres the next day' … So there's a bit of wilfulness."
Under the rules, designed to allow them to deal with small jobs such as removing asbestos wallboard for bathroom renovations, the asbestos removal was also supposed to have only been incidental to the main job.
The crackdown on handling of bonded asbestos in homes comes after months of controversy over the handling of loose asbestos fibres in the 1021 Mr Fluffy homes. Many more homes contain asbestos in the form of bonded wallboard lining the inside walls and ceilings of houses and used in eaves. The material is considered relatively safe if it's not disturbed and is kept well sealed to prevent asbestos fibres becoming airborne. But as the Mr Fluffy crisis unfolds, with revelations that loose-fill asbestos fibres have contaminated the living spaces in houses, it is clear the Government plans to start taking the handling of other forms of asbestos more seriously.
The new laws will not stop electricians or other trades dealing with bonded asbestos sheeting for "minor maintenance work", including installing down lights, light switches or power points, but will have to use a hand tool, not a power drill to drill through bonded asbestos sheeting.
All asbestos removalists will now be licensed and controlled by Worksafe instead of the planning department in the same way other high-risk construction jobs, including forklift and crane operation, come under Mr McCabe. Mr McCabe said that would mean asbestos assessors and removalists would have the same regulatory scrutiny as other states and territories, with an added rule that the first time an interstate removalists worked in Canberra they must notify Worksafe so their work could be checked. Worksafe has the power so suspend licences immediately pending an investigation if it has concerns about work.
All removal of friable asbestos – which is the non-bonded kind of asbestos used in spray-on fire retardants and Mr Fluffy insulation and the like – will have to be notified to Mr McCabe in advance, rather than after the work is completed, as is required now. For Mr Fluffy houses, which contain fibres of loose asbestos insulation, the new requirement to notify Mr McCabe in advance takes effect immediately, rather than January 1.