Main Content

Asbestos: the third wave

Asbestos: the third wave

Victoria Keays, Principal lawyer, Dust Diseases department, Gordon Legal

A common misconception is that asbestos exposure, and asbestos-related diseases, are ‘yesterday’s problem.’

Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. While the face of asbestos-related disease sufferers may be changing, the devastation these terrible conditions cause remains the same. ANMF members need to be aware of this serious health and occupational health and safety issue.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was extensively mined and milled throughout the twentieth century because of its excellent insulation properties. Australia had the highest per capita consumption of asbestos products. Asbestos was mined locally, most notoriously at the crocidolite (blue asbestos) mine in Western Australia, which is said to have had the most toxic asbestos in the world.

Asbestos-related conditions

As asbestos was so widely used here, thousands of Australians over many decades have suffered asbestos-related health conditions. Asbestos-related health conditions include pleural plaques, asbestos related pleural disease, asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma most commonly occurs in the pleura but can also occur in the peritoneum and the pericardium. There is no cure for mesothelioma. There have been medical advancements in recent years, such as the introduction of immunotherapy for lung cancer and mesothelioma, but sadly most treatments for these conditions are palliative.

Have I been exposed?

ANMF members need to be aware of the asbestos risks that may be in their workplace. Historically, hospitals have contained asbestos. For example:

  • asbestos cement sheeting was used widely as internal wall cladding and for partitions
  • vinyl floor tiles were often backed with asbestos
  • in older hospitals, asbestos was used to insulate pipes and boilers.

Many people are not aware that cement sheeting contained asbestos until the early 1980s and cement pipes until the late 1980s. Asbestos cement building products, if in good condition and not disturbed, do not generally pose a threat to health.

However it is easy for asbestos cement products to break and become fibrous.

The Australian Mesothelioma Registry publishes important information about the incidence and prevalence of mesothelioma. The latest report of the AMR was published in August 2019 and demonstrates the changing face of this disease. For example, whilst the disease still more commonly afflicts men, the number of women diagnosed with mesothelioma in Australia has risen from 106 in 2011 to 142 in 2018.

More people are being diagnosed as a result of domestic renovation exposure, with some 21 per cent of those surveyed reporting non-occupational exposure to asbestos and 63.8 per cent reporting both occupational and non-occupational exposure to asbestos.

Domestic renovations account for the majority of non-occupational exposures. This is explained by the enthusiasm with which Australians used asbestos cement sheeting in the construction of their homes; most houses built before 1983 will likely contain asbestos cement products somewhere. Even being around renovation work when asbestos cement products are cut can be hazardous.

If you think you have been exposed to asbestos, you should do the following:

  1. Tell your general practitioner so they can give you medical advice and record the exposure in your medical records.

The ANMF (Vic Branch) occupational health and safety team advises that if you may be exposed to asbestos, or are exposed to asbestos, at work:

  1. Prior to any renovations or refurbishments occurring, ask your HSR to find out if there is any known asbestos in the area, and if it is likely to be disturbed. A clear plan should be devised as to how asbestos exposure will be eliminated for staff.  The plan should include air monitoring, no work in the area until it is deemed clear of asbestos and other controls (including for patients).
  2. If asbestos exposure occurs in the course of work, immediately stop work and raise the issue with your HSR, local manager, and OHS manager
  3. Contact ANMF for further guidance.
  4. Register the exposure with Gordon Legal.
  5. Report the exposure to Worksafe. Incident notification forms can be obtained from Worksafe Victoria’s website at:

What to know about compensation claims

Firstly, asbestos diseases are rare. Most people who are exposed to asbestos do not develop any health conditions as a consequence. However, if it does eventuate, the consequences can be grave.

If you, your family or friends, or your patients are diagnosed with an asbestos-related condition, it is important to act quickly.

To protect a sufferer’s entitlement to pain and suffering damages, a case must be issued in that person’s lifetime. This is a simple step for a lawyer to undertake when they know a person’s history of asbestos exposure.

Different laws apply in different states and sometimes for different time periods. It is critical to get expert advice from a lawyer who acts exclusively for dust disease sufferers.

Sadly, we are still seeing the devastating consequences of asbestos exposure which occurred decades ago: people diagnosed with terrible conditions through no fault of their own – by simply going to work or doing a renovation of the family home.

We must all work together to highlight risks, report and prevent asbestos exposure occurring today, so as to potentially save lives in the future.