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Law firm Slater and Gordon is today launching an asbestos register for apprentices and young workers exposed to the dangerous product at work as part of Asbestos Awareness Week 2010.

Slater and Gordon asbestos lawyer Margaret Kent said the firm was concerned by reports that many young workers, particularly apprentices, were being exposed to asbestos products at work.

“You would have thought that with all of the information and knowledge that we have now about asbestos that there would be no excuses for young workers having their future health put in danger,” she said.

“It’s horrifying to hear stories about how young people are being exposed to the deadly products because of a lack of training, and in some cases, because of unscrupulous employers.”

Ms Kent said the register was important because of the ‘lag time’ of 30 to 40 years between exposure and the possibility of developing an asbestos-related disease.

“The purpose of the register means that if someone develops an asbestos disease then the historical information can be accessed and used in the pursuit of a claim,” she said.

“It can give young workers some comfort in knowing that all of the important details about the exposure have been recorded that they’ll be there for perpetuity.”

Asbestos sufferer John Steele, who has been a campaigner on this issue, used today’s launch to repeat calls to have basic training and education for young workers and apprentices improved.

“Many young trade workers are not aware of the dangers that they coming into at work and many are afraid to speak up against their boss, particularly those in small workplaces,” Mr Steele said.

“Training for apprentices should be made compulsory in the TAFE system in Victoria and it should be comprehensive.

“If we are serious about stopping the next wave of asbestos victims, we should improve our training and education in this area."

“Asbestos is a dangerous product and it should be properly regulated.”

Mr Steele said the issue was not restricted to workers, as many young people who purchased older homes in Victoria and wanted to do their own renovations were also putting their health at risk.

Young AMWU member Peter Mahoney was unknowingly exposed to asbestos about three years ago while demolishing the inside of an engineering factory in Bayswater.

“Three of us worked over a long weekend to clean out the building. We used knives to cut off the insulation around old water and steam pipes, and then we used angle grinders to cut the pipes,” Mr Mahoney said.

“We only found out that asbestos had been used as the insulation around the pipes when the professional asbestos removalists arrived to take away the asbestos from the roof. The removalists told us that the pile of rubbish we had created on the floor included asbestos and it was only then that we knew what we had been dealing with.

“It makes me angry to know I was exposed in that way, and it’s my future health that was put at risk. We weren’t wearing any protective gear, expect for goggles, which are just useless for protecting you against asbestos.”

Mr Mahoney said that while the exposure was talked about at work afterwards, “nothing was done.”

“I think that lots of young people are being exposed to asbestos because they’ve got no idea of what it looks like and they don’t necessarily work for good bosses who are looking out them. We should have been warned before we started the job.”

Victorian Trades Hall Council, Occupational Health and Safety information officer, Renata Musolino said many trade unions were aware of cases where young workers had been exposed to asbestos at work and increasing awareness was important.

“Workers, particularly young people should not be putting their lives on the line when they go to work each day,” she said.

“There has been a long hard slog in Australia to have the companies that produced and distributed asbestos products in Australia held to account. We don’t want to go backwards to see more and more people exposed on the job. From overseas figures, we know that the 'next wave' of sufferers of asbestos diseases are the tradespeople like carpenters, plumbers and so on. ”

Ms Kent said the Apprentice and Young Workers Asbestos Register would mean that the details of the exposure, such as the time, place and products, could be recorded for future reference.

Ms Kent said the asbestos register would be available online on the law firm’s website so that it would be easy to access. She said an information sheet had been created to assist the young workers, but joining a union was another way to learn about safety and workers’ rights.

In Victoria, asbestos exists in many old factories, hospitals, schools and homes. It can be found in the walls, roofs or as insulation, amongst other forms.