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Asbestos awareness research


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kNOw cancer risks at work, Cockle Bay Sydney, May 2015



James Wunsch, Colman Brunton



Asbestos awareness research


Presentation outline:

In early 2014, the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) commissioned researchers at Colmar Brunton to research Australians’ awareness, attitudes and behaviours towards asbestos. James Wunsch provides insights from the findings, arguing that more work is required to make sure all stakeholders are adequately aware of the risks and how to manage them.

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Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for having me at today’s conference. It represents my research that we did for the agency last year.

As Peter mentioned, you know, there is a range of activities going on. So, we have got to keep in mind that this is, sort of, data that was collected in May 2014. It has provided us with some benchmark measures or baseline measures about where awareness, attitudes and behaviors in relation to asbestos sat at that point in time, and ideally, as we move forward and the agency implements its range of activities, we will see some of these benchmark measures moving in the right direction.

So, in terms of what we did, basically, we wanted quantitative research to provide a snapshot of where awareness, attitudes, and behaviors sat in relation to asbestos. There were some primary and secondary audiences identified. Trades people and DIY home renovators were the two sets of audiences that the agency really thought were at the most pointy end. Obviously, they have the highest risk of exposure through their activities and, therefore, was a real strong need to identify where those guys mapped in terms of awareness, attitudes, and behaviors.

Secondary audiences - real estate agents and landlords, those that can provide a key influence point, in terms of people purchasing property, moving into new properties, etc., being more aware of the risks they may be potentially exposed to, given the asbestos risk rating of that property.

And then, the general public. What does the general public feel about asbestos? What do they know about it? What do they need to know about it? Someone not involved in home renovation or in a tradesperson role might think: “Well I don’t need to know anything about asbestos.” Well, we all know that we are potentially one has purchase away from actually having a situation where we may have to deal with asbestos, and it is important, therefore, that knowledge of this issue is at a level whereby people can engage, understand that this is a real risk, and what they can do about that.

So, what have we found? So, I’m going to take you through basically the main structure of the survey was a battery of attitudinal and behavioral questions generally on a five-point scale. So, these slides that I will present are all, sort of, formatted in the same way. We have got the findings for the general public on the left-hand side, tradespeople - second from the left. We have got the DIY home renovators second from the right, and the far right, real estate agents and landlords. I’ll make the point that both the general public and the tradespeople audiences and the home renovators for that matter were nationally representative samples.

So, general public and home renovators were done by an online survey format. Tradespeople, we actually did a telephone survey on a national basis, and tradespeople were screened to be working in a sector related to building and construction. So, obviously, they needed that point of reference.

So, in terms of how important is it to know about asbestos related dangers? You know, positive results here, in terms of most people can see the importance. Eighty two per cent of tradespeople rated it a very important issue to be aware of. So we then said: “Okay, importance, how informed do you feel on asbestos related dangers?”

As you can see, we see some dips here with the rate, in terms of people either feeling poorly informed or not informed, especially in relation to the general public. Still there is quite a good result in terms of tradespeople, albeit 12% are only moderately informed on this issue. Some 20% of the general public describe themselves as either poorly or not at all informed.

We ask on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is no knowledge at all and 5 is very knowledgeable, how do they self rate their knowledge of asbestos and its related dangers? A similar pattern emerging here with tradespeople obviously far more engaged on this issue, rating their knowledge higher, albeit that they are still close to 20%, who are only giving themselves a moderate rating or lower.

So, even though as a group across these four different groups, they are emerging as obviously more engaged and more knowledgeable, there is still a real issue here, in terms of ensuring that the people that are more likely to be exposed with asbestos in the workplace are really mindful of those risks and taking appropriate strategies to mitigate that risk.

“Confidence in ability to identify asbestos containing materials.” So, on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 not at all confident, 5, very confident. Obviously, general public is far less knowledgeable about “Where is this stuff in my house?” So, we are seeing a big drop here, in terms of the confidence and being able to know where asbestos might be in their house. A similar pattern with DIY home renovators and real estate agents and landlords. Tradespeople, a better result, but again, more than 1 in 10 not confident in this regard, and these are the tradespeople. So, again, this reiterates to us that the job is far from complete, in terms of educating this cohort about the dangers and the risks that might be open to them in the workforce.

“Confidence in ability to identify situations with risk of asbestos exposure.” Again, 28% of tradespeople are only moderately confident or below and it drops right away for other audiences, general public, home renovators, and real estate agents, and landlords.

So, that sort of: “Look, I know that asbestos is another problem. It is an issue. I have heard that it causes cancer and is not something you want to, sort of, mess with.” There is a gap between that more positive understanding, at least recognition of the risk versus the practical: “Okay, where is the stuff? How do I potentially ensure that I don’t get exposed to asbestos?” Okay, we then asked a series of attitudinal questions about dealing with asbestos. The first one was: “Anyone doing renovations needs to very mindful of asbestos”. A great result here, in terms of, you know, almost universal agreement across these four groups that we surveyed.

“I would pay for specialist advice if I was unsure if something contained asbestos.” What we are seeing here is 17% of tradespeople disagreeing with this statement. You know, is that because they have had the formal training? Are they aware of the risks and taking appropriate strategies? Is it a cost driver as the point that you made in terms of, “Well, you know, I think I can manage this on my own, etc.”

So, what are the factors underpinning that result? You know, in our interpretation, there is a risk that at least a proportion of that 17% are potentially having a greater risk of exposure to asbestos than probably is warranted.

“Even a small exposure to asbestos can be very dangerous.” Ten per cent again of tradespeople disagreeing, including 6% strongly disagreeing. So for us, as a group, there is this strong agreement.

There is still a significant minority who we feel these results are showing are still possibly a bit too complacent in terms of their attitudes towards asbestos and how does that translate into actual behaviors on the work site?

Asbestos is very common in Australian buildings. As you can see from the dark green below, our tradespeople cohort far were far more knowledgeable that this stuff is everywhere. It is very prevalent. Ten per cent of the general public saying I just don’t know, 22% neutral. The key result for this slide to us is that for the general public, it is again that effort to raise awareness that asbestos is very prevalent in the Australian-built context.

“Asbestos only poses a danger if disturbed.” Fifty six per cent strongly agree in the tradespeople cohort. So, again, more knowledgeable about asbestos and its various states and how those states translate into risks, but again, if you look at the general public, we have got, you know, close to 30% disagreeing with that statement, 10% of those just saying: “I just don’t know … I don’t know enough about the topic.”

“I wouldn’t have a clue what types of materials contain asbestos.” We put these clients a reverse question to ensure that, sort of, we are drawing the nuances at. As you look at the second column, tradespeople 44% strongly disagreeing, 16% disagreeing, but of concern, one in five tradespeople are actually agreeing with this statement. So, they are self-assessing: “Look to be honest, I don’t have a clue where this is.” Again, it is re-iterating that there is further educational work that needs to be done with those that might be at greatest risk of exposure.

So, they were a battery of questions that we administered to everyone. We then had a section for tradespeople specifically, so I’m going to quickly go through those results.

We asked if they had had any formal training in relation to asbestos and how it needs to be managed in any building renovation or demolition work. Only two in five reported having undertaken formal training in relation to asbestos. So 60% of people are saying: “I have had no formal training. I work in the building construction area. I haven’t had any formal training on this issue.”

For those that had undertaken the training, we asked the question, how useful was the training for you on a 1 to 5 scale? The vast majority of the people said it was either very useful or quite useful. Only a small minority saying it was not useful training.

We then asked a question to everyone whether they had had training or not, and 29% of all tradespeople we surveyed said that they wanted more training on this issue. So, there is a demand out there amongst this cohort for more training in relation to asbestos management. We asked tradespeople a series of questions about their attitudes towards risk. Generally, it is quite a positive picture. So, “All staff from the business are discouraged from taking any risks in relation to asbestos.” Eighty seven per cent, strong agreement. “Business organisation takes asbestos dangers very seriously.” Again, 81% strong agreement. Very little disagreement to these statements. “I am happy to raise the cost of asbestos removal with clients if necessary.”

We go to the last one. “I know what to do if asbestos is identified on the building renovation or demolition site.” You see the dark green dropping here. We are starting to see more neutral responses to this one as well. So, there is a gap between a positive attitudinal stance and how that translates into actual practical application of knowledge of asbestos.

This is reiterated in the second slide. “I know how to protect myself from exposure to asbestos.” Slightly lower agreement again.

“I have enough information about asbestos to make informed decisions on the job site.” We are starting to see more red, more yellow in terms of neutral ratings for these questions.

The standouts for us are the last two columns. So, “I’m concerned about potentially being exposed to asbestos.” We are getting 23% saying: “I don’t really have any concerns. I disagree with that statement.” Is that because they are knowledgeable? They have had some formal training? Is it because it is not an issue that I am overly engaged with?

And perhaps, the final one on the far right. “I have had sufficient training about how to identify and manage asbestos on the job site.” We have got 25% either strongly agreeing or disagreeing with that statement. So, again, it is adding further weight to this argument that amongst our tradespeople cohort, this is an issue where further training is obviously warranted. Those employing staff were asked whether they understand their legal obligations in terms of ensuring that their staff are not exposed to asbestos at work. And of some concern, 24% didn’t feel they had sufficient understanding of those obligations.

So, you know, from a legal perspective again, what are we doing to ensure that those that are managing staff and sending out on site are appropriately taking steps to ensure they have got the knowledge, the training, and skills to deal with asbestos appropriately?

Looking at DIY home renovators, so these were people that we screened having had performed some kind of DIY home renovation work in the past two years. We asked whether there has been any risk assessment undertaken for asbestos? Less than half reported any sort of risk assessment process had taken place prior to those activities being commenced.

We asked where asbestos was present, which describes how the asbestos was removed and disposed of. So, around 18% of the people said: “Asbestos was an issue in the renovation I did.”

So of those we said: “How did you manage that?” Slide out to the column on the right-hand side. So, the green: “A licensed asbestos removalist was hired to do this.” at 23%. “I did this myself.” - 36%. So, over a third of people saying “I just managed that process myself.”

Again, did they have the training? Did they have their protective equipment? You know, we can’t tell from these results unfortunately but to us, at a headline level, this is giving us, you know, some concerns around that there would be at least a proportion of these people potentially not taking as appropriate risk mitigation practices. 41% - “The tradesperson or building contractor did this on my behalf.” Similar pattern here to the tradespeople, in terms of: “Asbestos removal must be undertaken by licensed specialists.” Strong agreement. “I take asbestos and its dangers very seriously.” Again, high agreement.

“When preparing for any renovation project, asbestos is a key consideration.” We are starting to see a dip there in terms of either neutral or some red slipping in.

“I am concerned about potentially being exposed to asbestos.” We had 17% disagreeing with that statement.

So, again, it may be that they are undertaking renovation work where asbestos isn’t an issue, but for us again, it is an interesting benchmark figure to have in terms of at least a proportion of people feeling that this is not an issue of great concern to them.

“I know what to do if asbestos is identified on a building renovation or a demolition site.” We are starting to see more red and yellow here. So, less awareness, less self-assessed capability to deal with the situation where asbestos is present.

“I know how to protect myself from exposure to asbestos.” Again, 22% saying they don’t know that.

“I have enough information about asbestos to make informed decisions when doing renovation work.” Again, 23% red in terms of disagreeing with that statement.

“I have sufficient knowledge about how to identify and manage asbestos on the job site.” We have got 30% of DIY renovators disagreeing that they actually have that knowledge. So, yeah, the task of informing this particular cohort, I think, is a very important one.

Real estate agents and landlords, both our budget and time for this project meant that we weren’t able to do a national sample. We had 122 responses to this survey. So, these findings are broadly indicative as opposed to necessarily representative of this cohort, but they are still quite interesting.

So, these guys were asked whether they had fielded any queries about asbestos from clients over the past 12 months. Only a quarter received questions about asbestos over the past three years. Those who had received such queries, just under two-thirds, thought they were well or very well placed to answer the questions, while 16% were not well placed to do this.

In terms of formal asbestos training for these guys, much, much lower. Only 19% recalled receiving such training in the past. Who did it was through their own company primarily or a peak body industry or an external training organisation.

In terms of real estate agents and private landlords, attitudes towards risk and importance of asbestos: “I have a duty of care to tenants regarding informing them where asbestos is present.” Strong agreement. “Asbestos removal costs need to be considered when dealing with properties built or renovated between 1940 and 1990.” Again, reasonably strong agreement.

We are seeing a dip here. “I understand my legal obligations in relation to asbestos when we are dealing with clients or tenants.” A high proportion of yellow and red coming through. Similarly, “I actively consider asbestos and how tenants could potentially be exposed.” We are seeing a low agreement with those statements amongst this group. Again, there is lower practical knowledge coming through with this group too.

“I know what to do if asbestos is identified in the property.” Lower levels of agreement.

“I know how tenants can protect themselves from exposure to asbestos.” Lower agreement again, and: “I have enough information about asbestos to advise clients or tenants where necessary.” Twenty five per cent strongly disagreeing with the statement. A further 23%, neutral.

Quickly looking at our information needs, we asked who needs more information about asbestos? Tradespeople were the highest at 18% saying: “Yes, I need some further information”, but across the board, there were at least a minority people who said: “I want to know more about this.” In terms of information that tradespeople wanted: “How do I identify asbestos or materials containing asbestos was the highest?” - 43%. “General information, general guidelines.” - 23%. “How to handle asbestos?” - 15%. And “Safe removal of asbestos?” - 12%

“Where would tradespeople go for information?” So, Google search still ranks highly, turning to an asbestos specialist or removal company. Workplace safety authority would be a potential source of advice, general internet, Master Builders Association, etc. So, there are a variety of sources emerging in terms of where these guys might look for information.

So, in terms of conclusions, and keep in mind these were made close to a year ago when we tabled our report to the client. In terms of the general public, most people agree that asbestos is important to be aware of and its related dangers. Twenty five per cent said they are only moderately informed and a further 20% said they are poorly informed on the subject.

Very few people are confident on their ability to identify what materials contain asbestos or situations that could pose dangers of exposure. So, the findings and suggest there is a gap between the desire to do the right thing and the practical knowledge about how to actually do so.

Self-assessed knowledge of asbestos and its dangers is moderately the best among the general public and only moderate understanding of how prevalent asbestos is in the Australian built environment. We believe the most prudent approach is to minimise exposure risk and assume that anyone could engage in risky or dangerous asbestos behaviours into the future.

So, for us, collectively, there is stronger evidence of the need for ongoing communication with a broader community on this important topic.

For tradespeople, they are generally more informed and engaged. However, there is a small proportion that are still at risk of inadvertent exposure through failure to appropriately recognise the materials or situations where asbestos may be, or needs to be considered, or because they disagree that small amounts of exposure to asbestos can be very dangerous.

So, again, there is a clear need for ongoing education of tradespeople on this issue, especially new apprentices. And there were some clear differences emerging by age when we looked at this group, in terms of knowledge and awareness of asbestos and its risks. There is a strong desire for additional formal training and further practical information that can assist in terms of identifying materials or situations where asbestos may be present.

For DIY home renovators, this group straddles basically the general public and the trades groups. They are more likely to be engaged in behaviors that potentially expose them to asbestos, but are unlikely to have attended any formal training on asbestos in how to identify, how to safely remove and dispose it during any DIY activities. As such, we recommended to the agency that this be a key audience for ongoing communication.

And finally, real estate agents and landlords are potentially key influences in terms of behaviours in this broader community. Less than one in five have received formal training, but there is a strong desire for more training, and we want to make sure that these guys, with information provided, that they are doing it from a clear evidence base, as opposed to potentially misleading information, albeit in good faith.

Thank you.

This page was last updated on: Friday, October 21, 2016