Asbestos stops work on section of Orica Kooragang Island's $67-million overhaul

SAFETY FIRST: Orica Kooragang Island's ammonia plant. Asbestos has been found in one of the brick-lined chimney "stacks". Picture: Simone De Peak.
SAFETY FIRST: Orica Kooragang Island's ammonia plant. Asbestos has been found in one of the brick-lined chimney "stacks". Picture: Simone De Peak.

UNIONS say dozens of workers have been exposed to potentially deadly asbestos fibres after the killer material was found where they were working – allegedly without the proper protective gear – in an enclosed part of Orica’s Kooragang Island plant.

Orica has not denied the asbestos discovery but has disputed the union account without saying how or where the union narrative might be wrong. 

Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union organiser Peter Harris confirmed on Wednesday that work had stopped on the affected part of the plant for a week.

Mr Harris said that asbestos had been found behind walls of fire-brick in one of the ammonia plant chimney stacks. He said the contractors charged with replacing the bricks had been wearing personal protective equipment but that scaffolders and other workers on the same job in enclosed space had not. He said the job had not been listed on the plant’s “asbestos register” – a list of areas where asbestos would be found, or likely to be found. He said the men had been at work for some days before “black stuff” where they were working was confirmed as containing asbestos. Subsequent “swab tests” had detected asbestos fibres on the scaffolding.

Further tests found asbestos in the “crib rooms” used by the workers. He said the 35 to 40 workers whose jobs had been stopped for a week had been turning up for work, and spending their entire 12-hour shift inside the crib rooms.

Mr Harris said it was no surprise to find asbestos in a plant of this age and nature but it was difficult to understand how the area in question would not be on the asbestos register given it was often used as an insulator along with “refractory” material (fire bricks).

The $67-million overhaul of the ammonia plant is the first since the hexavalent chromium controversy of 2011. The potentially carcinogenic chemical escaped from the plant when it was being restarted after a similar period of maintenance. 

On February 15, Orica Kooragang general manager Scott Reid invited the Newcastle Herald and other media to tour the plant, stressing there would be no repeat of the 2011 controversy.

Mr Reid said at the time that the “health and safety of workers and the community” was the company’s priority. On Wednesday, Mr Reid said asbestos had been “anticipated” and “continuous air monitoring had returned a negative result for airborne fibres”. SafeWork NSW had been “advised of the asbestos removal processes”.

SafeWork said it had visited the job and was reviewing the asbestos management plan and other documents for any breach of safety laws.