Saturday, November 27

Firefighters say they were exposed to asbestos in the Ponsonby and Onehunga incidents

Firefighters who say they are exposed to cancer-causing asbestos have issued a safety advisory against their employer.

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File photo.
Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Fire and Emergency admits it hasn’t met health and safety deadlines, but says it has “sufficient protection.”

the Provisional improvement notice (PIN) housed at the Auckland City Fire Station gives Fire and Emergency (Fenz) eight days to prove it has not violated health and safety laws.

WorkSafe says it will evaluate Fenz’s asbestos procedures.

The minister of labor relations and safety will be informed this week and will meet with the professional firefighters union.

‘My crews … contaminated’

The dispute over the asbestos threat has come to a head after asbestos passed through Ponsonby from a fire 11 months ago at the middle school, forcing a dozen homes to evacuate for a month.

Fenz says Ponsonby fire crews were properly decontaminated.

But Auckland City Chief Firefighter and Health and Safety Representative Conrad Pentecost says they only wore breathing apparatus at first, not in the hours that followed, and that the entire response highlighted widespread shortcomings.

“The Ponsonby fire was the last catalyst,” he said.

“According to the monitoring, they were registering dangerous levels until the following afternoon.

“Those were basically my computers that were being contaminated, and they were basically being ignored.”

Local residents have previously spoken about how poor the authorities were in warning them.

The professional fire brigade union has told the Fenz government and management that Fenz is guilty of “serious and continuing failures.”

“Every time a firefighter is exposed because Fenz does not establish, implement and monitor decontamination protocols it is an avoidable exposure to a carcinogen,” the union said, complaining that it had to force Fenz to act.

Decontamination ‘ad hoc’

Pentecost filed its first complaint in 2019, at the time of a large asbestos-contaminated fire at a factory in Onehunga.

Eighty firefighters battled the Argus fire, with some reporting to commanders that it appeared to have burned from asbestos, according to a review of Fenz submitted to RNZ.

But the building’s owner had said there was no asbestos, so nothing was done about the fire brigade’s warning.

Decontamination at the factory was “ad hoc,” according to the review.

“Some appliances returned to their stations in a very polluted state, both inside and out.”

Just two days later, Fenz confirmed that there had been asbestos.

Crucially, in terms of other fires, the review warned that Fenz was “potentially in breach of the 2016 occupational health and safety (asbestos) regulations.”

Fenz told RNZ in a statement that it complies with the law.

However, it admitted to the union in July that its risk management documentation is out of date with the 2016 laws. It is being updated.

In fires like those in Ponsonby and Onehunga, commanders obtained a site report in advance on the hazards. In Onehunga, it contained incorrect information for the owner and user of the building.

Representative Simon Court said he had been contacted by firefighters concerned about the exposure, saying that the asbestos was ending up “all over the exterior and interior of the vehicles, and the exposure continues through contaminated surfaces, seat fabrics and interiors.”

WorkSafe has identified asbestos as the leading cause of workplace-related illnesses that cause death. An estimated 170 people die this way each year.

The court said firefighters wanted urgent improvements to standard operating procedures and access to “the same health screening that all workers exposed to asbestos on the job are entitled by law, and that employers are required to provide.”

A senior Auckland City Station official, John Roberts, said Fenz was falling behind the code of practice on asbestos enacted in 2016.

This was one of the reasons many firefighters across the country were complacent, Roberts said.

“In almost 40 years I have never received any specific training on asbestos,” he said.

“There are procedures [but] some of them are out of date.

“If there was more awareness of the dangers and training in identification, that would help.”

‘Sufficient protection’

The union asked the regulator several months ago to investigate.

WorkSafe says it will evaluate Auckland fire stations to see how they handle asbestos.

Fenz says his commitment to WorkSafe “confirmed that we have an asbestos risk management system in place,” Deputy Chief People Officer Brendan Nally told RNZ.

“We are confident that our procedures provide sufficient protection against the damaging effects of asbestos.”

Fenz recently included asbestos in its two-year-old Carcinogen Control Project program.

It is also updating the way it treats asbestos after a fire, adapting a model developed in Australia to treat carcinogens.

“WorkSafe … has not raised any concerns with this approach,” Nally said.

Fenz says it has processes, showers, and laundries to clean people, equipment, and trucks. The equipment gets wet, bagged and specially cleaned.

Roberts says this doesn’t always work in practice and that better decontamination is vital.

The Onehunga Fire Review notes how not everyone reported their asbestos exposure when they should; there were 18 such reports in total.

Pentecost said Fenz should introduce comprehensive tests on fire stations and fire trucks, and monitor the health of firefighters.

“We have a very, very big blind spot,” he said.

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