Department hoses down threat of asbestos

The Department of Education’s asbestos register lists 2185 schools as being contaminated with the hazardous building material, with 109 identified as having the worst category of the substance.

The revelation was made public at a state Budget Estimates hearing at the beginning of September, where Education Minister Sarah Mitchell held firm on the Coalition election promise to clear the school maintenance backlog, despite still standing at $622 million compared with the $679 million in December last year.

Labor’s Courtney Houssos turned her line of questioning of Department officials to contamination from so-called “friable” asbestos. “It is literally decaying and the fibres are breaking down,” Ms Houssos said. “That is the case in 109 schools across NSW.”

The hearing was told the asbestos register listed 998 schools, of the approximate 2200 in the state, as having “damaged” asbestos within their grounds.

Port Macquarie-based Federation Organiser Ian Watson, who was interviewed by the Seven Network for his region’s news bulletin, said the asbestos threat had been compounded the Government’s failure to repair ageing and/or damaged school buildings.

“Close to half of all public schools were reported to have either ‘friable’ or ‘damaged’ asbestos, which poses a potential risk to the health of both staff and students,” Mr Watson said.

“While Federation will continue to lobby the NSW Government in order to highlight the need to prioritise public school infrastructure spending, Federation Workplace Committees are urged to use the Work Health and Safety Issue Resolution Procedures to seek immediate redress to unsafe facilities and environments.”

The Minister said the Department was “doing everything we can to ensure the safety of the students at our schools”.

“When the presence of asbestos is reported, I have confidence in the processes that the Department, particularly School Infrastructure NSW, has in place regarding appropriate action,” Ms Mitchell said.

Department Secretary Mark Scott disputed the suggestion by Ms Houssos that the Department had “buried away” the information or that the Labor MP had made a “discovery”.

“We are very diligent, particularly around … the maintenance program that is running,” Mr Scott told the hearing. “We are aware that the management of asbestos is a critical issue when school building works are being done.

“That, in part, is why we identify schools as we do. That is why we engage constructors and those doing maintenance with the protocols that we have. I dispute the suggestion that somehow there is a discovery here, as well as the premise that we are somehow not being transparent around this.”

The hearing was told the $622 million maintenance backlog included 274,000 line items of maintenance to be completed this year.

Referring to the election promise, Ms Mitchell said: “I am confident with the progress we have made in relation to that commitment.

“We have made the commitment that that is what we are going to do and I have no reason to doubt that that will be the case.”

Information on how to use the Work Health and Safety Issue Resolution Procedures are outlined in Federation’s Work Health and Safety Bulletin 03 (October 2014).

The Bulletin is available via Federation’s website,

— Scott Coomber