Asbestos Time Bomb
'Time Bomb For 6000' screamed the headlines on page one of the Melbourne Herald-Sun, April 17, 2002. The three page story signaled the latest round in a fierce and decades long fight between the Victorian State government and asbestos sufferers in Gippsland.
The Latrobe Valley, in the heart of Gippsland and two hours drive south east of Melbourne, is home to huge, coal-fired power stations supplying eighty-five percent of the State's power. Until recently, all of the stations were built, owned and operated by the Victorian State government. Most of the stations were (and are) heavily contaminated with asbestos which, from 1923 until 1979, was used in a completely uncontrolled fashion without any protection for employees.
In 2002, the regional community is experiencing an epidemic of asbestos-related disease while the Victorian State (Labor) government, the Office of the SECV Administrator and its insurer, the Victorian Managed Insurance Authority, determinedly turn their backs. Claims are still being slogged out on a case-by-case basis with all the usual delaying and payout minimisation tactics. Specialist medical research and care facilities are non-existent, correct diagnosis is still a problem, access to a hospital bed is difficult, families are in distress. Who do you go to when the State government is the culprit, the insurer, the underwriter, the hospital, health system and community services provider? And doesn't want to know?
Using Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, Gippsland Asbestos Related Diseases Support Inc. (GARDS Inc.) recently accessed the actuarial reports of the State government insurer, the Victorian Managed Insurance Authority (VMIA). They proved that the size of the problem, estimated by my father, George Wragg, in his book The Asbestos Time Bomb (1994), was accurate.
The reports and an exposure & claims model developed for the State government insurer in 1996, are based on a workforce of 140,000 over a forty-nine year period (1931-1980). Of these, construction, operations & maintenance, making up to eighty percent of the total workforce, received the highest exposure levels.
From 1985 - 2000, there have been four hundred and two claims for asbestos-related disease. In its claims model, the actuaries admit they could not use figures taken prior to 1986 as they were too low and under-reporting suspected.
On the basis of the claim patterns, the VMIA actuaries estimate that 99.7% of employees exposed for up to ten years and who develop asbestos lung cancer do not make a claim. 59% of employees exposed for longer than ten years and who develop asbestos lung cancer do not make a claim. The actuaries note that they do not expect the claim rates to change but, if they do, the impact would be significant. Influences like legal precedents were cited in the list of potential change-agents.
As at June 2000, the VMIA actuaries table that the average SECV/VMIA workers compensation payout for asbestos cancer was $80,000 (AUS). In our experience, as little as funeral costs are being offered to some widows. As at June 2000, in a separate case, a Melbourne lawyer who contracted mesothelioma from working briefly in a pipe factory as a young man, was awarded $1.1 million (AUS).
The exposure model does not include families and other members of the public.
The State government has denied that any significant numbers of SECV public liability claims for asbestos disease are occurring. Yet, their reports show that at June 2000, sixteen percent of total claims for asbestos disease were being made by members of the public.
Confronted with all of this, the State Labor government reacted by releasing another set of figures: six thousand ex-SECV employees are still considered to be at high risk of developing asbestos-related disease.
Since the figures went public, the State government has not moved in its position. All it is willing to offer the LV community is a mortality count of a group of 3600
GARDS Secretary Cheryl Wragg said "from the documents it would appear the State government wants to calibrate its exposure model to better determine the extent of its financial liability. Our community is being asked to approve the mortality count on a ‘wait-and-see’ basis before any other support is offered.
If readers had any doubt that money is more important than people, they need look no further than the Latrobe Valley situation. We continue to be disgusted at the State government’s lack of compassion. They appear to be very comfortable with injustice, pain and suffering caused by their active neglect. It makes you wonder where their Labor principles are".
April 25, 2002