Sydney mishandles asbestos contamination in Town Hall House


The City of Sydney celebrated November as Asbestos Awareness Month with a succession of compulsory conferences in the Industrial Relations Commission over the way they handled asbestos contamination in their Town Hall House on 7 October.  Just when it looked like the City had survived an entire year with no criticism from us of their processes, their general lack of commitment to employee welfare, their propensity for confused and confusing communication and all from an organisation boasting of its transparent processes and interest in providing documents to whomever wants them, they deliver an asbestos contamination fiasco containing all those things – but the transparency.

On 7 October, subcontractors of the contractor responsible for maintenance in Town Hall House (where there can be 900 or more employees every day plus tenants) drilled holes in fire doors, the majority of which were clearly marked as containing asbestos, and, before they were stopped by someone working for the contractor Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions (BGIS), had contaminated fire stairs and foyers in fourteen separate areas on ten different floors.

While the City was advised in an email at 11:14am that the doors had been drilled and that they contained asbestos (and the sub-contractors had fled the building) the City allowed employees to continue working until the end of their normal working day which, for most would be six hours after the advice was provided.  And given that employees can only go to a toilet in Town Hall House by walking past the fire doors, or even using the stairs, that would mean many would have walked right past the contamination, or over it.

The City also allowed employees rostered to work on Saturday and Sunday to come to work. Uh oh…

While first raised at 11:14, nothing happened to alert employees to the risk and no steps were taken to manage the risks until at 2:48pm when the City advised staff that the fire doors were closed to conduct “air sampling testing,” and not using the word “asbestos” at all.

Asbestos fibres had been released from the doors but it was not until the Sunday that a hygienist recommended that Town Hall House be closed to allow the cleanup - something that then took two more days. 

In the way the City normally communicates, the immediate advice to employees failed to mention that they would be paid for the day the building was closed. That’s when the investigation of processes, what went wrong, how this occurred, who was responsible for the City’s response, whether it should have been accelerated to a higher level of the organisation, who made what decisions etc, began.

And then the to-ing and fro-ing with the City - their Manager Corporate Human Resources and the CEO about what had happened; when we could meet (Monday was offered by the City but then withdrawn because of “conflicting diary commitments” - that is, their people had better things to do) and they offered the rest of the week up to Thursday, demonstrating that they didn’t share our urgency; some confusing messages about when we would get the report; all culminating in our frustration and the filing of an industrial dispute on 3 November.  The dispute was listed before Commissioner Murphy on Monday 7 November.  There were many questions flushed out of the conference chaired by the Commissioner.

There are so many things wrong with this process that it’s hard to know where to start and it now seems that the ten questions we originally asked of the City have been compounded by two other issues. First, that carpet tiles have been replaced potentially for fear of asbestos contamination and may not have been removed consistent with asbestos handling guidelines and second, that the closure of the fire doors (except in an emergency!) could have been a breach of those provisions of the EP&A Act preventing the obstruction of fire doors.

Following the proceedings before the Commission, we wrote to the City on 9 November and included the ten questions developed during the IRC proceedings.  We added to those ten questions the two additional issues about the replacement of the tiles and breaching the EP&A Act. 

While we filed the dispute because it didn’t appear that the City was taking the issue seriously and the communication was indolent, confusing and frustrating, the CEO responded at 1:48pm on Thursday 17 of November that “as I have advised you will get the report in full, when it is completed and available”.  But, as we discovered, the report had been completed and was available to the City at 7pm the night before.  Where it had been in the hours up until the CEO’s advice to depa remains a mystery and it was not forwarded to the unions until 7:45pm that night.

There are more questions at this stage than there are answers even though the issue has been the subject of two compulsory conferences and will return to the Commission on 8 December.

While the actual issue itself is a disgraceful performance with insufficient concern for the welfare of employees, we run the risk of losing sight of the issues about the asbestos contamination while we chase the CEO for an honest answer about when she became aware of the report being “completed and available” and, if it wasn’t provided to her the night before, why not.  And if it was, why tell us that we would get it when it was completed and available when it was already completed and available, and possibly in her hands?

Either she hadn’t received the report by 1:48pm (and that means it was withheld from her by someone from 7pm the night before) or she had the report while she was busy telling us that she didn’t. Let’s hope we don’t have a pants on fire moment here.

The City did respond to the ten questions but needed more time on the carpet tiles and EP&A Act questions.  They responded that “the report was received by members of Executive and key internal staff” and “once members of the Executive and key internal stakeholders had an opportunity to review the report”.  Yes, but who had it after 7pm?  And, when did the CEO see it?

Commissioner Murphy on 21 October recommended that the City provide further answers to the unions, not just on who had the report and what was happening to it while they were busy telling us they didn’t have it, but on fundamental issues like why the City didn’t know work was being done on fire doors, how they still don’t know how many carpet tiles were replaced, or where, or how they were replaced.

In a city with such a high reputation for its progressive and valuable work in planning, public transport and sustainability, their responses to the legitimate concerns of the unions, and to us as the notifier of the dispute, is hypocritical and unacceptable.

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