Hospitals in Australia rank among the best in the world for utilizing the latest techniques and innovations.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for safety.
Of the more than 700 public hospitals and 630 private hospitals in Australia, many are not as safe as they appear.
Health unions and lawyers are warning that many major hospitals in the country are riddled with asbestos. The deadly mineral is the known cause of a number of diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Exposure to asbestos poses a serious health risk to hospital staffs and the public.
The fact that asbestos lurks in Australian hospitals should come as no surprise. Many of these buildings were built prior to the 1980s when asbestos was considered a wonder material.
Asbestos was incorporated into a wide range of products to protect against fire, corrosion, acids, electricity and energy loss.
The building industry used asbestos-containing products extensively in the construction of homes and businesses, including hospitals.
As a general rule, any establishment built or renovated before the mid-1980s likely contains asbestos-containing materials.
Common areas where asbestos is found include:
- Lagging on steam pipes
- Ceiling cavities sprayed with asbestos
- Fire doors with asbestos cores
- Boiler houses and laundries insulated with asbestos
- Asbestos fireproofing on columns
- Electrical wiring insulation
- Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning ducts
- Underground service tunnels
Hospital Built on Top of Hundreds of Tons of Asbestos
Westmead — one of Sydney’s major hospitals — was forced to close its asbestos-riddled service tunnels in 2014.
Former James Hardie engineer Fred Sandilands told ABC News that during his employment he supervised the dumping of tens of thousands of tons of asbestos waste in the immediate area of the hospital and throughout other suburbs surrounding the James Hardie asbestos factory in Sydney.
The hospital itself is riddled with asbestos, found in old fire doors, boilers and laundry rooms. The extensive network of hot water pipes within the underground service tunnels are wrapped in asbestos lagging, some of which has become friable.
For decades, hospital staff and nurses used the tunnels to transport sick patients from one hospital building to another, inadvertently exposing themselves and their patients to toxic asbestos fibers.
The tunnels have also been used for nonmedical reasons including visits by Technical and Further Education (TAFE) students and even Halloween parties where decorations were draped on the asbestos pipes.
Untrained Worker Exposes Asbestos Concerns
In 2014, a young apprentice — untrained in the dangers of asbestos — cut into some lagging.
Following the incident, Westmead Hospital chief executive Danny O’Connor acknowledged the risk but stated he had not seen any reports of friable asbestos.
“There is asbestos in the tunnel but prior to the disturbance of the lagging on the piping within the tunnel, all of the asbestos was contained,” he said.
Shortly after, however, the tunnels were inspected by industrial hygienists who found white, brown and high-risk blue asbestos on concrete columns, concrete surfaces and paths within the tunnels.
Following the report, the tunnels were closed to all but a select few, who were required to wear protective clothing and face masks when entering.
In 2015, the hospital began the first stage of a massive redevelopment involving the demolition of some existing buildings and the excavation of the top 8 inches of contaminated soil.
Under controlled conditions, the contaminated soil was removed and transported to an approved disposal facility. Broken pieces of bonded asbestos sheeting were also removed from the base of plants in surrounding garden beds.
Calculated measures were taken to reduce the risk of residential waste streams entering stormwater catchments during demolition.
The Health Services Union (HSU) worked closely with Westmead management to prevent asbestos exposure risks in and around the site.
HSU also began health monitoring of Westmead staff members who worked in the tunnels and may have been unknowingly exposed to asbestos.
The asbestos problem at Westmead has opened the eyes of many who were unaware of the danger that lurks in buildings they thought were safe.
Tragically, Westmead is just the tip of the iceberg.
Major hospitals in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Sydney are also known to have underground tunnels full of asbestos and fire doors with asbestos cores.
Some of these materials are damaged and extremely dangerous.
According to the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency’s 2016-17 report, occupational asbestos exposure increased to 70 percent from 64 percent the previous year.