Media Release by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Review of FaHCSIA response to formaldehyde and asbestos health risks

Yesterday I received the independent report on the response of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) to the exposure of Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) staff to formaldehyde while living in converted containers.

A review into the Department’s response was commissioned by the head of FaHCSIA, Dr Jeff Harmer, on 23 April 2008 and conducted by Tony Blunn AO.

In May, following a delay in information to me about a second health risk – asbestos found in NTER communities – I asked Dr Harmer to expand the scope of the review to include departmental communication on safety issues.

I was concerned that in both cases there had been a delay in advice about their occurrence being provided to me.

The report identifies shortcomings in the Department’s response to concerns first raised by staff about an odour in converted containers in November 2007.

The report finds that diffused responsibility and accountability lines across the Department in relation to the NTER, combined with poor Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) management meant that the Department’s response to air quality issues raised by Government Business Mangers (GBMs) was slow and inappropriate given the seriousness of the health risk.

With regard to the asbestos issue, the report finds that the Department responded effectively to this health risk. However the report also finds that there was an unacceptable delay in notifying me and that a comprehensive risk management plan was needed.

The report makes recommendations for improving risk management and communication and strengthening OH&S processes.

The Department will accept and implement all 16 recommendations contained in the Blunn report.

I am determined that these changes will foster a culture within FaHCSIA of more open communication and proactive, rapid response to health and other risks and threats.

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

Whilst in both cases, it appears that the health risks are minimal, I have instructed FaHCSIA to ensure that health checks and other support is provided to those who want it.

The wellbeing of community members and Commonwealth staff is my highest priority.

I will continue to take every possible measure to protect their health and safety.