Exterior of Broadwater Sugar Mill. Photo Jerad Williams / The Northern Star
Exterior of Broadwater Sugar Mill. Photo Jerad Williams / The Northern Star Jerad Williams

Stoush erupts over asbestos claims at sugar mills

THE CEO of Sunshine Sugar has denied union allegations it put workers at risk of asbestos exposure, in response, labelling the union bullies.

The Electrical Trades Union issued a press release saying three sugar mills at Condong, Broadwater and Harwood had been issued with safety notifications over asbestos fears.

They said Sunshine Sugar, which operates the three sugar mills in northern NSW, had been issued with a series of safety rectification notices after a union investigation found broken and badly degraded asbestos sheeting. They said it was potentially exposing workers and the public to the risk of inhaling deadly asbestos fibres.

Sunshine Sugar CEO Chris Connors said the press release was "simply inaccurate".

He said: "ETU have failed to reveal Sunshine Sugar has systems in place which are compliant with the Act and the Code of Practice.

"As with many of the buildings in Northern New South Wales, we acknowledge that we have asbestos sheeting in parts of the mills. We have a register of all asbestos-containing material and have formal procedures to deal with it."

The union said officials conducted safety inspections of the mills after workers raised concerns that management had failed to respond to their concerns in relation to the presence of dangerous, friable asbestos fibres.

The Electrical Trades Union said the inspection located a number of serious asbestos safety breaches, including: broken asbestos pieces on the ground in public access areas next to the Broadwater mill; corrugated asbestos sheeting that contained holes, cracks, and visible asbestos fibres; and broken asbestos sheeting in a lunchroom that had simply been covered with clear contact sheets rather than being properly remediated.

They said as a result of the inspections, a number of safety rectification notices were issued under the Work Health and Safety Act regarding asbestos safety breaches at the Condong and Broadwater mills.

ETU secretary Dave McKinley said the company had been notified by workers of their asbestos concerns last month but had failed to act, with the CEO claiming it was because the wrong form had been used.

"Even a tiny exposure to asbestos fibres, which lodge deep in the lungs, can be enough to cause deadly cancers and other debilitating asbestos-related diseases," Mr McKinley said.

"Both the Condong and Broadwater mills are constructed with large amounts of asbestos cement sheeting, but natural weathering and age have resulted in these products breaking down, releasing friable asbestos fibres which can easily become airborne and be inhaled.

"In the short term, the company needs to immediately remove the damaged products, but they also need to move towards a plan for full asbestos removal and remediation to avoid similar incidents occurring in future.

"We have also been disappointed that management tried to pass the blame for their failure onto staff, with the CEO claiming the reason no action was taken was because a worker used the incorrect form to report the issue."

Sunshine Sugar said they have three mills Condong, Harwood and Broadwater, which Unions have been visiting over the last month.

Sunshine Sugar said at Harwood, the CFMEU inspected the site and in fact congratulated the team on their policies and management of asbestos.

Mr Connors said in regards to "the isolated issue at Broadwater", there was a small piece of sheeting that had been broken. The employee who noticed the issue did not follow correct procedures. If the correct procedures had been followed, action to manage the safety risk would have commenced immediately.

"The issue was dealt with quickly upon the employee advising about the form he had filled out (whilst at an EBA negotiating team meeting). The area was barricaded off and a qualified contractor engaged to manage any exposure risk. We subsequently had testing undertaken, including airborne testing, which showed that there was no asbestos in the air. Zero. We have advised all employees of this,' he said.

"At Condong, the ETU have never raised any issues regarding Asbestos. Their staff have entered the site on the basis of a bullying claim - to which they found nothing. They then attempted to raise electrical issues, which our employees rejected".

Mr Connors said Sunshine Sugar staff and management continue to be frustrated by the conduct of the ETU during their recent visits.

He said they " have been extremely aggressive and targeting not only management but also their own members. They are the ones that have effectively been bullying the employees. They have shown total disrespect to the electrical tradespeople on-site who actually challenged them on their statements".

"Their press release is simply incorrect."

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