Electricians working on a $200 million renovation at the Sydney Opera House have walked off the job over safety fears following asbestos tests.
Thirty-five workers refused to continue installing cabling through the iconic building after confirmation asbestos had been located in work areas.
Samples collected yesterday were today confirmed to contain potentially deadly friable asbestos.
Two months ago asbestos was found in the wiring in the building and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) said 25 workers were exposed to fibres while working in a service duct.
“This issue was first identified two months ago, with SafeWork NSW issuing improvement notices to builder Laing O’Rourke giving the company seven days to remove the asbestos or eliminate the threat to workers through appropriate safety measures,” ETU secretary Dave McKinley said.
“Electricians yesterday raised the alarm that they were again being exposed to loose asbestos fibres, which has now been confirmed by scientific testing.
“Two months after this major safety issue was uncovered, and the builder was ordered to rectify it by the safety regulator, we have again seen workers exposed to these carcinogenic fibres.”
Mr McKinley said some of the workers on site would not know the health effects of their exposure until they were in their 60s.
“Throughout my career I’ve worked with people who have died from asbestos and it’s a horrible, horrible miserable disease.
“These guys won’t know for 15, 20 maybe 30 years if this exposure is really fatal.”
A spokesperson for Laing O’Rourke said there had been two “unexpected” finds of asbestos this week.
“Safety is always a top organisational priority for both Laing O’Rourke and the Sydney Opera House,” they said.
“As with many Sydney buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, the Opera House contains asbestos.
“We have plotted for the management of asbestos in known and unknown locations during the course of the Joan Sutherland Theatre upgrades and there is a comprehensive Asbestos Management Plot in place.”
Workers previously threatened for taking industrial action
Mr McKinley said the union was demanding NSW Better Regulation Minister Matt Keen immediately launch as investigation as to why SafeWork refuses to impose a prohibition notice on Laing O’Rourke.
Such a notice would prevent work from taking place in contaminated areas until the asbestos was isolated and removed.
“It is completely unacceptable that workers, performers and the general public continue to be exposed to a toxic substance at this iconic building,” Mr McKinley said.
“…particularly as the builder is receiving $200 million from taxpayers to carry out the renovations.”
Electricians were threatened by Laing O’Rourke with prosecution in the Honest Work Commission when they stopped work over asbestos in August.
“It’s pretty clear the system is broken when workers are threatened with legal action for refusing to expose themselves to a deadly substance like asbestos,” Mr McKinley said.
The State Opposition have thrown their support behind the striking workers, with Industrial Relations spokesman Adam Searle calling on Arts Minister Don Harwin to fulfil his “professional and moral obligation” to ensure no-one is exposed to asbestos.
“Sadly, we do not want to see worker safety place at risk because the State Government is rushing ahead without the proper risk assessments,” Mr Searle said.
“The Sydney Opera House is a major international tourist icon, but safety must come first.”
Laing O’Rourke has been contacted for comment.
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