Hospital asbestos cost $380,000

The Dunedin Hospital asbestos scare cost more than $380,000 just for the initial response, as asbestos surveys released by the Southern District Health Board under the Official Information Act give a sense of the problem's scale.

Chief executive Carole Heatly said the board was costing a long-term plan to deal with the asbestos.

The building surveys, by Precise Consulting and Laboratory, itemise hundreds of deposits in the clinical services building, the register lecture block and the Fraser Building.

In all three buildings, numerous areas are deemed high risk, and require "urgent removal'', but there are different levels of risk and advice.

Removing asbestos from some areas may not be feasible, Ms Heatly said in a written response.

"Elimination is not always a practical option because removal of asbestos, particularly from ... ceiling spaces, would require large-scale closure for significant periods of an important clinical building.

"Isolation is the next most practicable step in WorkSafe's hierarchy and this is the one we have been investigating.

"Also, the time frame for what is considered urgent removal can extend to 12 months or more, depending on the level of planning and preparation required to carry out safe removal or isolation ... safety is our No 1 priority, so SDHB are continuing to work with our expert advisory panel and WorkSafe to manage the asbestos in accordance with the legislation and guidelines,'' Ms Heatly said.

Citing a need for "free and frank'' advice, Ms Heatly withheld five documents that contain the advice the board had received in the past year on the asbestos problem.

On October 22, parts of the clinical services building were closed to patients and other hospital users.

Most have reopened after urgent environmental cleaning.

"Until now, the focus has been on the clinical services building because it was the first area where asbestos traces were identified and it contains many key clinical services vital to the running of the hospital.

"Our ongoing approach ...is to close and contain contaminated areas until they can be environmentally cleaned and retested.''

The cost up to November 20, the most recent figure available, was $387,321 for assessment, testing, response management and cleaning, a second OIA response shows.

A senior Canterbury public relations official was flown to Dunedin three times in just over a week to help manage the public response, and the board is yet to be billed for this expense.

An OIA response from WorkSafe shows 10 Southern District Health Board employees are on the asbestos exposure register, six of them at Dunedin Hospital.

"We have not been notified of any diagnosis of asbestos-related disease for these registrants.''

One of the Dunedin registrants was in a corporate services role, and the rest were employed in an infrastructure capacity.

eileen.goodwin@odt.co.nz

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