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    Is self-regulation why Western Australia is finding asbestos in its buildings?

    Branko Miletic

    The state that became synonymous with the nation-wide asbestos crisis in the 1980s courtesy of the infamous CSR-owned Wittenoom asbestos mine, now in 2017 finds itself once-again spoken of in the same sentence as the word ‘asbestos’ after a relatively small number of roof panels on WA's Perth Children's Hospital (PCH) were found to have contained the deadly building material.

    The 150 roof panels - also known as unitised roof panels or URPs - that were discovered on the eighth floor of the nearly-completed $1.2 billion Perth Children's Hospital have now been all removed and a post-mortem has been done by the WA government to ascertain just how was it possible that one of the world’s most dangerous building materials ended up as part of the roof of a children’s hospital.

    Then there are the wider supply chain, standards and integrity implications for other Australian projects that have used the same Australian subsidiary of Chinese-based building products supplier, Yuanda Holdings.

    Speaking to the ABC, WA Treasury's executive director of strategic projects and asset sales, Richard Mann, said other projects serviced by Yuanda Australia, would now be under scrutiny.

    "It needs to be understood that this supplier in this case is a very large, international facade specialist, that supplies components to many, many buildings internationally, including Australia," Mann told the ABC.

    The company was also behind the building of the iconic "bird's nest" stadium in Beijing, which was used during the 2008 Olympic games, and while WA authorities have gone to pains to say there was no evidence to suggest asbestos was apparent in any other material supplied by Yuanda Australia across the state, it must be noted that the company was also involved in the building of the Fiona Stanley Hospital and Perth Stadium.

    The WA’s Department of Commerce in April of this year released the final version of the Building Commission Audit Report on Perth Children’s Hospital, and noted that “The Building Commission recommends that building contractors implement more thorough quality assurance and quality checking procedures when sourcing materials and components.”

    figure1.jpgFigure 1: Sectional diagram of unitised roof panel, shaded in red, showing the location of asbestos-containing fibre cement sheeting (in red). Image: WA Department of Commerce - Building Commission Audit Report

    In other words, the central recommendation from the WA government’s report into the incident is for the building industry to implement a more stringent policy of self-regulation.

    According to the WA Building Commissioner, Peter Gow, it seems self-regulation remains our first line of defence against the importation and use of non-conforming building materials.

    “While work is being done at a national level to address issues around non-conforming building products – including building products that contain asbestos – builders, and consultants inspecting building work, are still an important line of defence against inappropriate materials being installed in buildings.”

    “Builders will be liable if they install something that does not meet the requirements of the contract,” says Gow.

    However, it could also be argued that this over-reliance on self-regulation was what led to the failure to pick up any trace of asbestos fibre in the first place.

    According to an architect familiar with the Perth building industry and who asked not to be named, the asbestos find on the hospital “is just the tip of the iceberg.”

    The panels from Yuanda Australia that were installed at the Perth Children's Hospital were originally found to be asbestos-free on two separate occasions – first by an independent testing company in China, and on a second occasion by the building company John Holland, who built the hospital, and who had the panels independently tested in 2013. 

    While Gow insists that is an over-simplification of what actually happened, his own timeline of events seem to suggest that the builders were not even looking for any asbestos.

    “The URPs are made up of a number of components, including fibre-cement sheets. They were imported as sealed units. The fibre-cement sheets were not tested for asbestos in Australia as part of the subcontractor’s or the builder’s quality assurance or quality checking procedures."

    "John Holland inspected the assembly of URPs in China. John Holland and the subcontractor Yuanda relied on a test certificate from a manufacturer of fibre cement in China that stated the test related to “asbestos free” fibre cement sheets,” says Gow.

    “The test certificate stated that the fibre cement sheets tested met the mechanical standards set for fibre cement made without asbestos fibres. The fibre cement sheets appear to have been provided by a supplier other than the supplier who provided the test certificate relating to the mechanical standards set for fibre cement made without asbestos fibres. No evidence was provided of any tests for the presence of asbestos fibres in the fibre cement sheets,” he says.

    The project manager responsible for the PCH build was contacted for this story and he referred all enquiries to Yuanda Australia’s head office in Sydney, which was also approached for comment about the issue.

    At the same time, it is interesting to note that Yuanda’s website lists every one of its past and present projects - including those in Western Australia - all except the $1.2 billion Perth Children's Hospital.

    The final word needs to go to Peter Gow, who says that “the Building Commission has audited other buildings with components provided by Yuanda Australia and found no evidence of asbestos.”

    “Clearly the Building Commission or the WA Government cannot give assurances that there is no asbestos (incorrectly) installed on any Perth building,” he says.

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