Schools containing asbestos will be required to place warning signs at their front gate
January 02, 2014 at 12:05 PM
WorkSafe documents reveal that legal action was recently taken against the department for putting several schools at risk - despite the government previously insisting it had a ''comprehensive system'' to manage asbestos and keep students safe.
Under a binding agreement with the workplace authority, schools that have asbestos will now be required to erect warning signs on gates and buildings; hundreds of audits will be conducted over the next 18 months; and principals will be properly trained in asbestos safety procedures.
The breaches were recorded at three schools: Newlands Primary School, Clayton South Primary School, and Timboon P-12 College, all of which were found to have insufficient labelling or auditing practices.
Timboon, which is located in Transport Minister Terry Mulder electorate, was forced to shut down temporarily in July, when a WorkSafe inspector issued two prohibition notices after finding asbestos and peeling lead paint on site.
The department has since acknowledged wrongdoing and signed an ''enforceable undertaking'' with the state's workplace authority promising to improve. But the revelations are an embarrassing blow for the government, which has repeatedly insisted that ''all schools are safe'' and that it already had appropriate measures to deal with asbestos.
Alarm bells sounded in June, when previously unreleased audits revealed that two-thirds of Victoria's 1531 public schools contained asbestos, and that many faced ''substantial risk'' unless the material was removed, sealed or labelled.
At the time, Education Minister Martin Dixon told Fairfax Media: ''We have a comprehensive system in place that includes expert training, detailed asbestos management plans and a hotline that schools can call to get an immediate site inspection and, where appropriate, have the asbestos removed.''
Former Labor policy adviser Andrew Herington, who obtained the audit documents under freedom-of-information laws, welcomed the latest improvements, but said the department should have acted sooner, before being taken to court.
Opposition education spokesman James Merlino agreed, accusing the government of ''direct and disgraceful cuts'' to the education budget, which he claimed had delayed the removal of asbestos in schools.
However, Mr Dixon hit back, warning Labor not to ''cynically politicise how seriously the government and [the department] take the safety of students and staff''.
As part of its agreement with WorkSafe, the department must now establish a new taskforce to monitor how schools are managing asbestos.
About 400 audits must be completed by June 30 next year, and 180 must take place in each subsequent year so the government can track which schools contain the potentially hazardous material.
Following each audit, schools that carry asbestos will be required to have a sign at the front gate directing visitors to reception, a sign at reception alerting visitors to the school's asbestos register and management plan, and a sign on the door of any building that contains asbestos.
Asbestos was popularly used in buildings between the 1950s and '70s, before the health risks were widely known. While it is relatively safe when undisturbed, fibres that become airborne can lead to diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Australian Education Union spokeswoman Carolyn Clancy said a crackdown was long overdue. ''It's not just about auditing, it's also about keeping a central register to show where the asbestos is,'' she said.
Education Department spokesman Simon Craig said in most cases, schools managed their asbestos appropriately. ''However, when risks emerge at schools, or if schools require additional support, we intervene immediately,'' he said.
By Farrah Tomazin