This centenary story takes us into the modern era and an intense work health safety campaign to prevent members being exposed to hazardous materials.
In May 2011, a police officer attached to the Wetherill Park Operational Skills area made a startling discovery.
A wall in one of the buildings used as a matt room was cracked and through it he detected broken asbestos sheeting.
When he raised the alarm with management, they admitted to knowing about it for years.
In 2008, the Police Property Section had all the buildings under its control inspected for hazardous material including lead and asbestos.
The Wetherill Park building, along with a number of properties was identified as containing asbestos. At the time the employer decided not to release this information to the commands at risk, in breach of WHS regulations.
As a result, thousands of officers had been exposed to asbestos dust at the Wetherill Park Weapons Training Facility alone. Other high-risk locations included Coffs Harbour (HWP office), Lithgow Police Station (heating ducts), Wickham Holding yard, and the Sydney Police Centre shooting range and exhibit centre where lead was detected in the range and ventilation ducting.
Members were furious at the cover up.
They sprang into action and campaigned strongly. This forced the NSWPF to release the reports and formulate a plan to deal with the issue.
The Association’s Workplace Safety Officer instigated an investigation into police buildings which revealed that hundreds of homes also were contaminated with asbestos, lead or both.
To make things worse, when maintenance was done on police housing, the contractors had been advised to take precautions but the families living there weren’t told of the risk.
“Police housing is rotten to the core and the cover-up of the report into hazardous materials is the final nail in the coffin for police families,” Police Association President at the time Scott Weber said.
He believed a majority of the 460 police properties across NSW identified as having asbestos or lead paint or both, were police houses.
Some of the desperate stories we heard included a family moving out of their small police station and residence after two of their three small children tested positive to high levels of lead in the blood.
A father living in a small police station/ residence erected mosquito netting over his small daughter’s bed to stop the flaking ceiling paint from falling on to her while she slept.
Another family on the south coast was moved out of their Police home because the rampant mould growing on the walls, ceilings and furniture was making their children sick.
Many members contacted the Association to say they had done repairs on the police houses in which they lived, sanding and drilling, unaware they were handling asbestos sheeting.
The Police Association put government on notice that members would take industrial action unless the Police Minister guaranteed a full investigation. A formal complaint was also made to WorkCover in relation to the matter.
Under intense pressure, NSW Police established a working party, which included Association representation, to resolve these issues. All 1,273 NSW Police buildings were reinspected and $8 million from unspent capital works money diverted to remediation.
On 10 August 2011, Lithgow Police Station was closed while asbestos was removed from a heating duct. The asbestos risk in the Lithgow station’s plant room and heating duct was so serious it was given an A1 rating in 2009, which should have initiated restricted access and the immediate removal of the asbestos.
In total, the government committed to a budget allocation of over $100 million over four years to rectify hazardous materials in Police buildings.
This campaign is one of many run by the Association to improve police premises over our 100-year history.
It serves as a timely reminder of the vigilance required to ensure workplace safety for our members.