Asbestos Fear

Asbestos fear hit some businesses and workers in central Suva yesterday. This is despite Jone Usamate, the Minister for Employment, Productivity and Industrial Relations, appealing to people not to panic,
02 Jun 2017 11:00
Asbestos Fear
The capital city of Suva, with the Civic Centre highlighted as the hazard area. Photo: Ronald Kumar

Asbestos fear hit some businesses and workers in central Suva yesterday.

This is despite Jone Usamate, the Minister for Employment, Productivity and Industrial Relations, appealing to people not to panic, after the redevelopment work on the Suva City Centre auditorium was stopped because of asbestos presence.

Mr Usamate said the chances of air contamination were low due to containment works already undertaken. He said other materials which might contain asbestos were still intact and posed no threat.

But this was no comfort to the director of Tiko’s Floating Restaurant and Bar, Anthony Harm Nam. He said they had already received 50 booking cancellations after news of the asbestos quickly spread. Tiko’s is about 100 metres from the auditorium.

Other business operators in the stipulated 500 metre radius danger area interviewed said they had given the green light for their staff to go home if they felt unsafe. They wanted to remain anonymous.

A business operator said they wanted to ensure their staff members were healthy and safe while working near the auditorium.

“Our staff are our first priority and we will do what’s best for them.

“The asbestos found in the centre of the city is a huge risk on anyone’s health and we are concerned of why the SCC and the Ministry haven’t taken any responsibility to advise on the issue earlier since the redevelopment of the building had started weeks ago.

“We want the ministry and the SCC to come up with some alternative route for people to travel through the city without having to go through the centre route to get out of the city.”

Ashneel Singh, 23, who works as sales rep at a Victoria Parade shop said: “We all know it is highly dangerous and not safe for anyone to travel through the city,” Mr Singh said.

Jone Waqabaca, 38, said the SCC and ministry should come up with a solution to the issue soon because it affected civilians.

“We have been told at work to visit a doctor and go home if we feel sick which I think is a better thing to do because all of us are concerned about our health first.

“Our employers have given us clearance to go even though it affects their business and our bread and butter,” Mr Waqabaca said.

In April, Minister for Local Government, Housing, Environment, Infrastructure & Transport, Parveen Bala told Parliament that redevelopment had started at the Suva Civic Centre auditorium and lower halls.

The redevelopment was in partnership with the Guangdong Province.

Mr Bala had said there was favorable response to the expressions of interest for the Central Street Car Park public private partnership redevelopment with a $60 million car park, accommodation and sea view restaurant project proposed for the site.

But in his statement yesterday, Mr Usamate said the asbestos identified in a SPREP report contained 30 per cent of asbestos from the bulk material tested and was not airborne.

He emphasised that the Enforcement Officers of the National OHS Service had been dealing with the issue since the start of the demolition works on the site.

Employees of the Chinese building contractor were outside the Suva Civic Centre building yesterday despite the instruction.

According to security officers nearby, at least two workers of the contracting company had been sleeping and eating inside the Civic Centre building since the work had started early this year.

Yesterday the SCC car park located just metres from the building operated as normal.

A security officer from the security booth at the site confirmed that the notice on the asbestos had been up since February.

“But only now people are reacting to this because it has been confirmed by the officials,” he said.

Another concerned worker at a nearby building said: “We had known this issue two weeks ago and we were supposed to be moved 500 meters from it, but nothing so far, it’s a concern.”

An international organisation yesterday advised staff to take precautionary measures when travelling near or within 500 metre radius of the site.

An internal memo said:

“Asbestos has been found at the Civic Site in central Suva in important quantities and appropriate measures should be taken to guarantee our health. As from today you are asked to avoid as far as possible the Site Centre and 500 metres around that area. This is the indication given by experts in the matter.

“Tomorrow morning we will provide everybody with masks to be used when moving around the area, but for the time being, should you drive through the city centre, remain with closed car windows and with the AC set in close circle mode or switched off.  It may sound alarming but consider the city centre as a contaminated area and use high precaution until further notice.”

With immediate effect, Mr Usamate said the Suva Civic Centre would be sealed off including the building openings and the surrounding areas.

“This was done to contain any deposit of asbestos within the building until proper asbestos removal procedures were formulated by SCC and approved by NOHSS.”

SCC was further directed to hire a consultant to immediately undertake air sampling inside the building and areas close to the Suva Civic Centre.

“This is to ensure that the surrounding does not contain any hazardous material in the air,” Mr Usamate said.

In the meantime, SCC has also been directed to carry out a controlled wash-down of the buildings close to the Civic Centre building.

Mr Usamate has advised the general public to refrain from travelling through Town Hall Road or near the vicinity of the Suva Civic Centre;

“Close monitoring will be done by the Employment Ministry in consultation with SCC, Contractors and the Consultants involved,” he said.

“Further update will be provided before any work resumes on site.”

Edited by Jonathan Bryce

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