Students and teachers at a Brisbane high school were exposed to asbestos last year after a contractor penetrated the ceiling and walls of a building known to contain the potentially deadly material, it has been revealed.
- It took seven weeks for Sunnybank State High School to close contaminated areas and notify parents of the incident
- The teachers’ union says there are reports of teachers writing their names in dust that could have contained asbestos
- Education Minister Grace Grace has been called on to investigate claims of “intimidation and cover-up”
Builders struck an area of Sunnybank State High School known to contain asbestos in October last year while installing air-conditioning.
Seven weeks later, four contaminated blocks of the school were closed, and the school sent a letter to parents informing them of the incident on November 27.
It comes amid concerns that some teachers were writing their names in the dust on desks, unaware it could have contained asbestos, which can cause cancer.
“A contractor may have penetrated the ceiling and walls, known to contain asbestos in Block 4,” the letter sent to parents last year said.
“I can advise that the contractor has also undertaken work in other areas of the school, so in the interests of safety, the contractor has been directed to cease all work immediately pending further investigations.”
The letter said the contractor worked in Block 2 and 3 on November and October last year.
Both blocks were known to contain asbestos.
The letter said QBuild did a “thorough clean” of the site under the guidance of a professional hygienist and areas were closed as a “precautionary measure”.
The Department of Education appointed a specialist physician to manage the health risk to students and staff, but said the risk of exposure was “very low”.
The contractor has since been suspended and stood aside from the rollout of air-conditioning in schools across Queensland.
‘Disturbing reports’ of cover-up
Teachers’ Professional Association of Queensland (TPAQ) state secretary Jack McGuire said the association was aware of “disturbing reports” of teachers writing their names in dust on classroom desks at the Sunnybank school, without knowing it could have contained asbestos.
Mr McGuire called for Education Minister Grace Grace to launch an investigation into the incident.
“The cover-up is almost always worse than the problem.
“Minister Grace must launch an investigation into how this could happen and the Department’s subsequent response.”
Mr McGuire also called on Ms Grace to reveal how many other Queensland teachers could be at risk of asbestos exposure in state school buildings.
“Teachers who are impacted are urged to come forward to the TPAQ so that they can assist them industrially,” he said.
Members of the school community, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested a staff member attempted to report the incident with the school administration on the day it occurred but had their concerns dismissed.
The incident has not been added to Education Queensland’s asbestos register or reported to the government’s incident sample testing.
The department’s asbestos register said there had been 572,701 incidents of either presumed, confirmed or removed asbestos at Queensland state schools as of early November last year.
A government asbestos register found three schools reported incidents of asbestos sample testing last year, not including Sunnybank State High School.
It also showed a further two schools in 2019 and four in 2018 reported asbestos sample testing.
A Workplace Health and Safety complaint was lodged about the asbestos concerns on November 24 by a member of the public.
In a statement, the Department of Education said within an hour of receiving advice of the incident, a clean-up crew and hygienist were dispatched to begin the decontamination process.
The department did not respond to questions about why it took seven weeks for the contaminated areas of the school to be closed and for parents to be notified.
The spokesperson confirmed Sunnybank State High School restricted access to blocks 2, 3, 4 and 5 on November 27 after the discovery of asbestos material.
“This incident was managed in accordance with the Queensland Government Asbestos Management Plan,” the spokesperson said.
“Decontamination and remediation were completed in consultation with Workplace Health and Safety Queensland.
“The classrooms were ready for use for the start of the 2021 school year.
“QBuild suspended the contractor and issued a show cause notice. The contractor is no longer working on the air-conditioning program.”
The Queensland Teachers’ Union’s Cresta Richardson said it appeared the investigation by WorkSafe Queensland was still ongoing.
“The regional organiser is continuing to work with members at the school and liaising with the regional facilities staff,” she said.
In a statement, Education Minister Grace Grace said Sunnybank State High School worked with the school community and the Queensland Teachers Union to ensure staff and students were informed and supported.
“I am advised that as soon as the department was made aware of the issue, action was taken immediately, including communication with all staff and the Queensland Teachers Union,” she said.
Ms Grace confirmed Workplace Health and Safety Queensland was still investigating the incident at the school.