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Occupational Health & Safety

Is Australia still mopping up the effects of Asbestos?

14 Apr 2016, by Informa Insights

Asbestos is a group of silicate materials consisting of long, thin, fibrous crystals and millions of microscopic fibrils. Its affordability, tensile strength and ability to resist heat, fire, chemicals and electrical damage, made it widely used as a construction and fire proofing material in the 20th century.

Concerns about the carcinogenic effects of the material were first raised in the 1920s. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that asbestos inhalation was irrefutably linked to a number of deadly diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. Since then the material has been banned in 57 countries. However, we are still ‘mopping up’ its effects, with large quantities still found in buildings constructed prior to these restrictions.


In Australia, rates of asbestos related disease are the second highest in the world making asbestos litigation a major concern for construction companies, manufacturers and insurers. And rightly so, since asbestos liability was the most expensive tort in US history.

In Australia, rates of asbestos related disease are the second highest in the world.

Aside from the financial consequences, asbestos related disease (ARD’s) will continue to be a threat to the Australian population for decades with widespread psycho-social issues for both sufferers, and bereaved relatives. Incurable and unforgiving, the disease typically consumes its victims within 12-15 months, with severe psychosocial distress documented throughout its trajectory. Symptoms of the disease, especially impaired functional status, dyspnoea and pain impose limitations on the victim’s social life.

Penny Jacomos, Social Worker and co-founder of ADSSA (Asbestos Diseases Society of South Australia) reported in her Master’s research study ‘An exploration of the social experience of people diagnosed with an asbestos related disease, including mesothelioma and their family caregivers’ that the quality of life of this population was lower than other diagnostic and general populations. This was in contrast to the high social support (SS) this population reported.

The concept of emotional support was explored in Penny’s study, and the findings showed that 10% could not share their feelings with anyone and one third could not share their feelings with their spouse. Penny cites the concept of ‘protective buffering’, which refers to hiding cancer related thoughts and concerns from one’s spouse/partner, as a relationship- focussed coping strategy for this cohort. Because ‘protective buffering’ can pose deleterious effects for those who engage in this behaviour it seems important to intervene on this front.

The concept of ‘protective buffering’ can pose deleterious effects.

Patients who have mesothelioma experience a chaotic illness with high symptom burden, and at times, distressing medical interventions that are palliative rather than curative in virtually all cases.

Most support for patients with mesothelioma, comes from the private confines of the home and immediate family. A rapidly fatal course forces the patient and family to confront many fundamental changes in everyday life, for example, a younger spouse giving up work to spend as much time as they can with the patient, which requires a corresponding rapid adjustment in terms of finances, pre-litigation.

Referral to lawyers for compensation is a major part of working with this cohort. Penny cited the importance of the lawyers having a good ‘bedside manner’ throughout this process, which helps to mitigate any pre-conceived ideas or stress they believe may be associated with running a claim.

Penny stated, “It is often the ‘little things’ that count when working with our clients. Human compassion goes a long way”.

Discussing both the psychosocial and financial implications of work-related illness and litigation, Informa’s South Australia Safety Symposium will take place in Adelaide this May. As well as hearing first-hand testimonials from sufferers, the conference will explore what measures organisations can implement to mitigate risk, and lessen anguish.

To learn more about this event please download the program here.

SA Safety Symposium Adelaide



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