In November 2004, when coverage of the James Hardie controversy was at its peak, asbestos was found in the walls of a Darwin school. Children were kept at home as a precaution, but media coverage and a consequent contagion effect were immediate.A multi-disciplinary task force was established to determine the extent of buildings in the Northern Territory containing asbestos, and a public education campaign was prepared in just three weeks to raise awareness of safe handling methods, the first of its kind in Australia. The campaign used Rob Palmer, a familiar face from Better Homes and Gardens, a tag line of ‘Stop. Think Asbestos. Seek Advice’, stark black and yellow creative, television and newspaper advertisements, a website, hotline, brochures tailored to specific target audiences, and media coverage.A separate campaign was developed for Indigenous communities, featuring Rob Palmer and an Aboriginal character called 'Onion'. This campaign used a story-tellingstyle, with Onion playing a young man being taught about asbestos and safe handling techniques. An independent evaluation found high message recall, good awareness, and a high number of people in the target audience prepared to act on the advice given.
On 4 November 2004, a workman at Leanyer Primary School drilled holes in wall panels, one of which was identified as containing asbestos. As a precaution, principal Henry Gray asked parents to keep children at home for a day while NT WorkSafe assessed the incident and tested air quality. Undisturbed asbestos is not dangerous, and the threat level was low. However, publicity created widespread alarm and led to several reports of incorrect handling of asbestos and false alarms. This came at a time of elevated interest in the affairs of James Hardie and asbestos-related health problems. Media coverage was emotive, intense, and contagious. Media reports covered:
- an old asbestos school fence (it was actually fibro and in good condition)
- claims of an asbestos 'dump' from Cyclone Tracy at a school oval (nothing unsafe was found);
- workers at a school who had been exposed to asbestos and weren't wearing protective clothing (the sheeting was encased, and there was no evidence anyone else was exposed);
- a development that contained buried asbestos (this was alleged then disproved);
- claims by a local man to have contracted asbestosis while installing air-conditioning at two schools in the late 1970s (one wasn't actually built until the 1980s);
- claims by two plumbers to have seen serious asbestos exposure at a Darwin hospital when a walkway was allegedly excavated with “lots of dust and debris”. They claimed to have seen “two men in white suits sort the debris out, spray and hose it down, then disappear” (the material was fibreglass); NT WorkSafe banning a licensed asbestos removalist for failing to follow proper procedures. He was dubbed a 'cowboy' by the media, who obtained footage of the man at work (see page 18);
- the Local Government Association of the Northern Territory criticising inaction over derelict nursing quarters on Goulburn Island that contained asbestos (the community had been given repeated advice on how to use a licensed removalist);
- claims that Numbulwar School's cyclone shelter in Arnhem Land contained asbestos (an internal storeroom wall in the manual trades building contained asbestos encased as sheeting, was considered safe, but was being removed by Northern Territory Emergency Services as a precaution in case of cyclone damage);
- union claims that private buildings containing asbestos were being overlooked by a government review set up to address the management and awareness of asbestos. It was important to assume any pre-1990 buildings might contain asbestos, although registers over the years had been poor.
As soon as the Leanyer School incident was reported, the Government took decisive action to create a more accurate register of buildings containing asbestos and provide accurate information to the media, public and specific stakeholders. (N.B. A Building and Assets MaintenanceSystem will replace the asbestos registers in schools).By 9 November, four days after the Leanyer School incident, a task force had been established, along with a website containing fact sheets on asbestos, and a hotline.The challenge facing a community education campaign was to raise awareness of safe handling procedures, without unduly alarming the community about the dangers.
Due to the level of urgency, research was restricted to desk research and consultation with key stakeholders to develop an understanding of the issues surrounding asbestos. The project team drew key stakeholders together, including staff from NT WorkSafe, the Indigenous Housing Association of the Northern Territory, the Territory Construction Association, the Housing Industry Association, the Department of Employment, Education and Training, Territory Housing, the Department of Infrastructure Planning and Environment, the Trades and Labour Council, key unions, Environmental Health, and Department of Corporate and Information Services. Research from other states was reviewed, although none had done a campaign of this depth or breadth. The success of the initial research was driven by the good representation on this project team of all target audiences.
The primary target audiences were:
- Contractors, tradespeople (public, private and working inAboriginal communities),
- Home renovators
- Schools (principals, staff, students, parents)
- Public housing tenants
- Indigenous communities (including Community Government Councils and community members)
- People living in older houses.
Secondary target audiences included suppliers, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, the Real Estate Institute of the Northern Territory, Territory Construction Association, unions, other government departments, business centres, town councils, licensed asbestos removalists, Ministers, and the Local Government Association of the Northern Territory.
It was recognised that the Leanyer School incident was likely to escalate. Immediate actions taken by the Government were:
- To establish a joint review team to report to the Minister on the management of asbestos in government buildings and on how well relevant information has been provided.
- The Chief Executive of the Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET), which includes NT WorkSafe, contacted all schools personally about being 'asbestos savvy', and followed up by sending detailed kits to all government and non-government schools, including PowerPoint presentations for staff and students.
- An asbestos register was established to record occupational exposure to asbestos in work-related settings.
- A task force was established on 9 November to develop an Asbestos Response Plan.
- A dedicated website and 1800 number were established. The initial focus was a responsive media strategy to ensure timely, accurate and relevant public information. Senior NT WorkSafe staff were made available for interviews, including radio talk-back shows. From the outset, regular media releases were issued with factual information. Key messages were framed around the need to respond calmly in order to keep the issue in perspective, without dismissing the legitimacy of the public's concerns.
Concurrently, an urgent awareness campaign was developed to reach audiences such as schools, builders and do-it-yourself renovators. There was extensive consultation and research with key stakeholders, including unions, the Territory Construction Association, Local Government Association of the Northern Territory, Housing Industry Association, Indigenous Housing and Environmental Health departments. Despite the diversity of this group, a coordinated approach was integral to the success of the campaign.
The tagline for the campaign was ‘Stop. Think Asbestos. Seek Advice’.
A brief was put out for television, radio and newspaper advertisements, pamphlets and information booklets tailored for each of the key target audiences (schools, builders and do-it-yourself renovators), and a website.
It was felt the tone of the material should be that of a 'mate giving an important piece of advice', with a credible and recognisable source. First thoughts were to use a local builder, but ultimately, Rob Palmer, the well-known renovator from Better Homes and Gardens, was chosen (see page 26).
Key messages were:
- When working on any pre-1990 building, assume it contains asbestos and: ‘Stop. Think asbestos. Seek advice’.
- Asbestos materials don't pose a health risk if they are in good condition and left undisturbed and intact.
- Breaking, drilling or removal of asbestos material can pose a serious health risk if safety precautions are not adhered to.
The challenge was to balance the reality that we all live with asbestos with awareness of its dangers in certain situations and the need to take appropriate precautions. A commonsense factual approach was taken.
A stark black and yellow creative concept was developed for all material with the tag line of “Stop. Think Asbestos. Seek Advice”, (see page 27). It was used for:
- Radio, television and newspaper advertisements • Information booklets and flyers tailored for schools, tradespeople and do-it-yourself renovators, and public housing tenants
- A website
- A DVD and television advertisements
- A video for remote communities.
The booklets contained hints for safe handling of asbestos, simple steps to follow in the event of a suspected incident, check lists, and contact numbers for schools and public housing tenants. They were endorsed by Unions NT. Other activities included:
- Media conference and briefings
- Workshops held for key groups by NT WorkSafe staff
- Letters to stakeholders and secondary target audiences
- A Schools Information Kit containing information booklet, flyer, magnet, tested look-a-like sample and safety tape - sent to all schools in the NT
- Awareness sessions
- A Schools Asbestos Hotline
- General Information Hotline
- Powerpoint presentations developed for schools – with specific information for staff and students
- Stakeholder briefings
- A public meeting - held when renovation work started on Parap Primary School in December to explain precautions being taken as part of the demolition of two classroom blocks and that work was taking place over the school holidays.
Indigenous campaign (see page 32)
As Indigenous communities contain a high proportion of older buildings, many in a poor condition, a separate campaign was developed with a different communication style. This campaign was based on advice from several Indigenous educators working in Indigenous housing and education.
It was important to explain concepts visually and simply with humour and incorporating story-telling suited to Aboriginal communication styles. A character called Onion was developed, played by Peter de Toubert, an Aboriginal apprentice working in the Department of Employment, Education and Training and former Young Citizen of the Year.
Filming of an educational video 'Asbestos is Dangerous - Handle with Care' took place in Wycliffe Well and Ali Curung. The scenario followed Rob Palmer arriving in a car to see his old mate Onion. Onion tells Rob that he doesn't understand what asbestos is. So Rob (a familiar face in remote communities from his TV show) demonstrates how to handle asbestos safely. The tag line of “Stop, keep away, get some help, clean it up now” is chanted by local kids. The style and storyline has proven popular with its target audience.
A storyboard was developed from the video, and used as a supporting communications tool (see page 33). The video and storyboard were used during workshops conducted by NT WorkSafe staff in all Indigenous communities. They explained what asbestos is, when it is dangerous, how it must be removed by licensed contractors and what measures can be undertaken by communities to render old houses safe.
The media coverage subsided and became more factual.The website received 3226 visits and 42,943 hits between November and February 2005. In the month of October there were only 17 hits to the asbestos page on the NT WorkSafe site, but with the introduction of an extensive asbestos information site, hits rose to 1189 visits for November and December. The NT WorkSafe hotline received 105 calls, reports from stakeholders were positive, and evaluation showed they had absorbed the campaign's key messages.
Qualitative research conducted in April 2005 by Market Equity against the campaign objectives found all had been met:
- The campaign raised awareness and clarified safety issues associated with working and living with asbestos.
- It was evaluated as successful in providing target audiences with specific information relevant to the handling of asbestos. There was good message recall and a positive attitude among contractors. Almost all of them said they would take the advised precautions (unprompted message recall was 52% by contractors and principals and 69% for home renovators).
- There have been no more reports of asbestos related incidents (for the period of research).
- Some 92% of contractors and school principals agreed that information had been relevant, half had distributed the information to others, and they reported a positive attitude towards asbestos safety (87% would take all precautions advised).
For cultural reasons, it is difficult to conduct qualitativeevaluation of the Indigenous campaign, howeveranecdotally, NT WorkSafe, Indigenous Housing andEnvironmental Health staff report it has been well-received and effective.