Media Release by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

NTER staff accommodation

The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) has received a report from Consulting Enterprises in Technology (CETEC) about the presence of formaldehyde and other chemical levels in Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) staff container accommodation.

CETEC tested all containers and found that 89 per cent of the containers should not be occupied until their air quality has been improved. CETEC also found that there was a tendency for carbon dioxide and Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOCs) to build up rapidly within the accommodation due to inadequate ventilation.

The Department of Health and Ageing, working with the National Industrial Chemicals Notifications and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), has reviewed CETEC’s findings.

Based on their advice, the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer (CMO) has recommended the majority of containers not be occupied until remediation was undertaken to improve air quality to acceptable national standards.

The CMO, Professor John Horvath, has advised that “although exposure to formaldehyde and TVOCs at the levels observed by CTEC are unlikely to have caused harm, it is clearly necessary that the containers meet accepted air-quality standards.”

The CMO’s approach is supported by Comcare, the Commonwealth’s occupational health and safety regulatory authority.

This has been a difficult period for the staff affected by these health risks.

I want to assure staff and community members that their wellbeing is my highest priority.

Twenty-one accommodation containers have been tested and declared safe for use and Government Business Managers (GBMs) in five of the 24 affected NTER communities are able to use the containers.

The supplier, Royal Wolf, has undertaken to remediate all containers to meet Australian air quality standards.

Independent testing will be conducted as the remediation processes are completed and no-one will occupy the containers until the test results demonstrate acceptable air quality levels.

All the container accommodation is expected to be ready for use by the end of November.

FaHCSIA is also making progress in adopting all 16 recommendations from the Tony Blunn AO report.

The report was commissioned into the Department’s handling of the exposure of NTER staff to formaldehyde.

FaHCSIA has appointed a full time NTER Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) specialist and bolstered OH&S resources. An independent review of GBM employment conditions is also complete.

These additional resources will ensure a more rapid response to health and other risks to FaHCSIA staff.

FaHCSIA has also purchased 48 demountables for longer-term accommodation for GBMs and Community Employment Brokers.

These are being progressively installed in communities and should be ready for staff to use before the end of the year.