Media Release by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Accommodation for NTER staff

Some of the converted containers that our staff have been living in, for up to six months, may have possible high levels of formaldehyde.

We don’t know yet if the converted containers which our people have been living in actually have high levels of formaldehyde or what the health risks are if they do. However, we are not prepared to take any risks with the health and safety of our staff.

That is why last night we contacted all 26 affected staff and directed them to seek alternative accommodation. If alternative accommodation was not possible, they were directed to sleep in the ‘breezeway’ – a well ventilated part of the complex outside the containers.

Today, all affected staff are no longer living in the converted containers.

A FaHCSIA social worker was last night involved in the process of contacting staff and will be monitoring them today.

Staff today have been asked to seek alternative accommodation at the community level. Where this is not available, staff will be supported to find alternative accommodation at the closest centre so they are able to visit their community on a daily basis. If necessary, staff will be moved to regional centres and fly in/fly out arrangements will be put in place. Alternative options such as mobile homes, caravans are being explored.

FaHCSIA has informed me of the following sequence of events:

  • The containers were acquired by FaHCSIA from September 2007. They were seen as an effective means of getting cyclone-proof temporary accommodation into communities to ensure the NTER was mobilised quickly.
  • They were occupied by staff from late October.
  • FaHCSIA received advice of odours from staff starting in November. FaHCSIA followed this up and thought the problem was a result of a septic defect.
  • A complaint was lodged in December 2007. In January, FaHCSIA contacted the supplier and in February conducted an OH&S assessment of one container. The supplier made a site visit in February but was unable to determine the source of the odour.
  • In the same month, the supplier advised that they would undertake testing using an external consultant. This testing was done on a similar container based at their depot.
  • On 25 March, the supplier advised FaHCSIA that the odour was probably a result of a combination of factors including formaldehyde used in the construction of the containers furniture and that ventilation should fix the problem.
  • FaHCSIA requested a copy of the report which was received yesterday and my office was informed.
  • The Commonwealth Medical Officer was last night contacted by FaHCSIA and we are awaiting his advice about any possible risks associated with excess levels of formaldehyde and what health checks should be undertaken.

FaHCSIA advises that within 10 working days from Monday, all containers should be tested and remediation action taken.
I understand that this is a difficult time for affected staff and their families and we will be providing them with more information as soon as we can.
Their wellbeing, health and safety is my top priority. I want to reassure them that every possible measure will be taken to protect their health and ensure their safety.

The presence of government staff in communities is vital to the effectiveness of the Northern Territory Emergency Response. We will ensure that appropriate alternative accommodation is found so that they can continue their important work with local NT communities.

Affected staff are employed by FaHCSIA, the Department of Employment Education and Workplace Relations and Centrelink.