Alcoa's Australian Workers Exposed to Illegal Asbestos Gaskets  

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



On June 7, 2010, reports appeared of hazardous exposures to Alcoa workers years after Australia had banned asbestos.1 The source of the problem was the purchase in 2005 of 1,167 asbestos-containing gaskets from Pinjarra Engineering, a Western Australian (WA) company that supplies specialist valves, engineering and repair services to customers which include Alcoa World Aluminia, the Australian Navy, Worsley Alumina, Kasier Engineers, and Transfield Maintenance, amongst others. An article in The Sunday Times alleges that the contaminated valves, which “were disguised by Chinese exporters to look asbestos-free,” were fitted to steel piping throughout the Pinjarra alumina refinery in Western Australia. Two months ago, refinery workers tasked with “stripping/refurbishing” the gaskets ground and hammered them during routine maintenance. It is not known how many of the workers inhaled asbestos fibers.

While the company is not willing to comment on whether the tainted products had been used elsewhere, it remains “very confident that the risk presented by these valves is extremely small.” More than 20 Alcoa workers who remained unconvinced consulted the Asbestos Disease Society of Australia (ADSA), a Perth-based body. ADSA President Robert Vojakovic, who criticized Alcoa for not shutting down operations after the contamination was discovered, said: “There is no safe level (of exposure) to asbestos no matter how small and they (the workers) would have had gross (heavy) exposure to asbestos.” Investigations are ongoing by the state mining authorities; officials at the Health Department and Australian Customs have also been informed.

Just weeks before the discovery in Pinjarra, another corporation in WA was implicated in the import of asbestos-containing products destined for use at a liquified natural gas facility on the Burrup Peninsula.2 Australian Customs discovered a shipment of illegal asbestos gaskets onboard a Thai ship; the delivery had been ordered by Woodside, an oil and gas exploration and production company, based in Perth, WA.3 Speaking about the incident Chris Cain of the Maritime Union of Australia, said: “We're disgusted at how Woodside can manipulate the position to attempt to import asbestos in the pipes and gaskets on these foreign vessels.”

June 8, 2010


1 Towie N. Fears over deadly fibre. June 7, 2010.


3 More asbestos claims leveled at Woodside. March 25, 2010.



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