SafeWork NSW takes Blue Mountains council to court over asbestos at Lawson

Council will be prosecuted in court after SafeWork NSW issued eight breaches against it today (May 8).

The investigation started in December 2017 and related to the management of asbestos at the Lawson Mechanics Institute car park and at a nearby council facility in Park Street, Lawson in the previous 12 month period.

Off to court: Blue Mountains Council will face charges relating to its management of asbestos in the local court after SafeWork NSW finished its investigation.

Off to court: Blue Mountains Council will face charges relating to its management of asbestos in the local court after SafeWork NSW finished its investigation.

In a statement a SafeWork NSW spokesperson said the investigation into the management of asbestos by Blue Mountains City Council for offences related to Lawson carpark and the council facility in Park Street, Lawson had concluded.

"SafeWork NSW has commenced legal proceeding against the council in the local court for eight breaches of the asbestos provisions of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011."

SafeWork has yet to give more information about the breaches.

A council spokeswoman, in a statement to the Blue Mountains Gazette, said the breaches of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 could result in a fine in the local court and council would "now consider the case put forward by SafeWork when deciding how to respond".

"The organisation has already addressed the asbestos management issues that have been identified in the proceedings and has worked cooperatively with SafeWork NSW. The council's response has been comprehensive.

"In November 2017, the elected council resolved to authorise an independent investigation into asbestos management and subsequently resolved to implement all recommendations made by the investigator.

"The council has previously acknowledged that there were errors in its historical management of asbestos. Those acknowledgements were made after the issues were first identified in 2017."

The court action is expected to occur next month. The Gazette understands the parties could agree for the council to make some formal understanding about safety around asbestos, or the council could be fined up to $200,000.

In December 2017, SafeWork inspectors issued Blue Mountains Council with notices in relation to asbestos discovered in:

  • a council-owned building operating as a pre-school at Wentworth Falls
  • large waste piles at the council depots at Lawson and Katoomba
  • buildings at Springwood council depot
  • leaf litter at the rear of the yard at a council-owned building operating as a pre-school in Katoomba
  • Lawson library ceiling
  • the ceilings and walls at Warrimoo Citizens' Hall; and
  • the fireplace at Heatherbrae Cottage at Lawson.

The United Services Union also lodged formal grievances against council about alleged exposure to asbestos at the Lawson council depot site in Park Street.

The action allegedly related to the removal of asbestos material from the Mechanics Institute carpark at Lawson and transported to a stockpile site in Lawson's industrial area. At the time one source told the Gazette the material had also allegedly been used for training exercises for younger council workers, who were lifting it in and out of vehicles.

A confidential council document from May 2017, leaked to the Gazette revealed there were asbestos issues in 19 council-owned buildings. Council responded at the time by explaining staff safety was paramount, they had recently become aware of gaps in their system and the Asbestos Containing Material [ACM] was being managed appropriately.

At the time United Services Union acting general secretary Steve Donley said it was a "serious problem".

"There's a lot of people who are very upset about it and of course I am too. If council did know about [Lawson stockpile], that's the biggest problem," Mr Donley said. The union claims that "at least two of the [five] mounds in Lawson had contaminated material."

He added asbestos was "a long term problem" and health problems might not show up for 10 years. Workers would need to be tested every six to 12 months on an ongoing basis.

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Council's full statement: Council response to SafeWork NSW proceedings

"Blue Mountains City Council has been notified that SafeWork NSW has commenced proceedings against the Council in the Local Court of New South Wales for breaches of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017, that may result in a fine.

As legal proceedings have now been commenced any comments by the Council must be limited.

The Council understands that the proceedings relate to operational matters that occurred between November 2016 and September 2017.

The Council has previously acknowledged that there were errors in its historical management of asbestos. Those acknowledgements were made after the issues were first identified in 2017.

In November 2017, the elected Council resolved to authorise an independent investigation into asbestos management and subsequently resolved to implement all recommendations made by the investigator.

The organisation has already addressed the asbestos management issues that have been identified in the proceedings and has worked cooperatively with SafeWork NSW. The Council's response has been comprehensive.

The Council will now consider the case put forward by SafeWork when deciding how to respond.

The Council is unable to make any further comments at this stage."