Guest post by Yanina Purcell
Unitec’s Environmental Solutions Research Centre (ESRC) investigates ideas and concepts under two main themes of waste and pollution. Current research within these fields includes asbestos awareness and disposal solutions (bioremediation), construction and demolition waste minimisation (plastic waste reduction), and air quality (indoor air pollution). ESRC collaborates with Unitec’s other Research Centres (Applied Molecular Solutions and Ngā Wai a te Tūī) and external partners, as well as with Unitec’s Schools of Building Construction; Trades and Services; Computing, Electrical and Applied Technology; Architecture; and Environmental and Animal Sciences.
ESRC’s newest initiative is to facilitate better asbestos awareness in order to arm tradespeople and DIYers doing any renovation or building work with the knowledge to be and stay safe. Through our ongoing research it has been identified that one of the ways that this can be accomplished is via asbestos awareness talks and workshops, and what better place to start than with our own pre-trade students here at Unitec. There is definitely a need to educate our future tradespeople to be aware of potential asbestos hazards.
In New Zealand today, a lot of renovation and remedial work is being done on buildings. Much of this is due to the new Healthy Homes requirements, with landlords commissioning more work. DIY is also part of the Kiwi culture, and after watching the DIY shows on TV, people feel inclined to give renovation a go. Many buildings in New Zealand include asbestos-containing materials (ACM), which need special handling, and asbestos awareness is not common knowledge. In addition, the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude still prevails amongst many tradespeople and DIYers. The DIY shows don’t help with this, as they don’t highlight any asbestos problems that may have been dealt with prior to filming or the show going to air.
ESRC Director Dr Terri-Ann Berry was first made aware of the problem with asbestos awareness in 2014, when a Unitec civil engineering graduate went home to the Cook Islands and discovered a problem with the weathering of Super Six roofing contaminating playgrounds, and the subsequent disposal of the ACM. Terri-Ann conducted further research into the asbestos awareness problem in Canberra in 2016 with her ESRC colleague Shannon Wallis. In 2017 Terri-Ann and Shannon attended the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Conference, where they learned about national surveys as a means to get information regarding people’s awareness. They noticed that New Zealand was behind the times, and started conversations with Sarah Tohill of the New Zealand Demolition and Asbestos Association (NZDAA).
From these conversations it emerged that there was a need for better asbestos awareness in the community, and at the Asbestos Awareness Week Conference in 2020 it was identified that 80 percent of asbestos-related diseases affect tradespeople. Jake Curran, Academic Programme Manager at Unitec’s School of Trades and Services, attended the conference and was keen to research this further. Through an introduction by Marcus Williams, Director of Unitec’s Tūāpapa Rangahau, Research and Enterprise, the idea of an Asbestos Awareness mini course for Unitec students, developed by ESRC, was born.
Shannon Wallis was tasked with developing and delivering a pilot course. It was rolled out to four pre-trade classes in March 2021. The course consisted of a two-hour interactive lecture, with a PowerPoint presentation, videos and activities in which students had to identify ACM in buildings. They were taught about the different types of asbestos minerals, the diseases associated with asbestos exposure, where ACM may be found, uses of asbestos in the past, and ways to stay safe in the workplace and at home. The students also filled in a questionnaire about their awareness (developed by Harriet Omongdiabe, a Research Assistant with ESRC) before the presentation. A second questionnaire will be given to these students in September 2021. From these questionnaires, we will be able to see if the students’ awareness has increased.
In August 2021, Shannon will be presenting the same course to the next intake of pre-trade students. In future, it is hoped that the course will be rolled out across other Unitec schools – wider Trades and Services, Building Construction (Construction and Engineering) and Architecture – with the potential to offer it nationwide across the other ITPs.