Asbestos – ignorance is not a defence

In a judgement that should serve as a warning for all businesses operating in Australian that import goods, the District Court of Western Australia has convicted and imposed fines on a multi-national energy corporation for importing gaskets containing asbestos, even though the court found the company had imported the asbestos inadvertently.

The company, which has significant assets in WA, was convicted of two counts of contravening s233 (1)(b) of the Customs Act 1901 for importing a prohibited item, namely chrysotile asbestos, contained in gaskets in a condensate metering skid and two storage tanks in 2012 and 2013.

Asbestos containing gasket

The company was ordered to pay fines and costs totalling $175,000. Australian Border Force (ABF) Superintendent for Enforcement Operations WA, Clinton Sims, said it was every importer’s responsibility to ensure that all their imported goods contain no asbestos.

“The fact that the company in this case was unaware the imported gaskets contained asbestos at the time of import did not excuse it from liability.

“When it comes to asbestos, ignorance is not a defence. The onus is on importers to ensure they do not bring prohibited goods such as asbestos into Australia,” Superintendent Sims said.

“In this case the company had voluntarily disclosed the asbestos detection, had co-operated with authorities and accepted liability, but ultimately it was still its responsibility to prevent the importation in the first place.

“Importers should be aware of the increased risk of goods containing asbestos when sourced from countries that have asbestos producing industries”.

The ABF has enhanced its capability in recent years in risk profiling and targeting for asbestos across all cargo entering Australia.

Despite some countries being lawfully permitted to label or test goods declaring them asbestos free if they are below a certain threshold, the ABF reminds importers not to assume that goods labelled ‘asbestos free’ are in fact free of asbestos, or that testing of goods undertaken overseas and certified ‘asbestos free’, meet Australia’s import requirements.

To ensure that goods manufactured overseas do not contain asbestos, importers should question their overseas suppliers about the use of asbestos at any point in the supply chain.

The ABF encourages importers to investigate, and where appropriate implement, the following:

  • contractual obligations with their suppliers that specify nil asbestos content
  • sampling and testing for asbestos content before shipping the goods to Australia
  • regular risk assessment and quality assurance processes, that take into account:
  • what raw materials are used in the manufacture of the goods
  • where manufacturers outside Australia source their raw materials, and
  • identifying, and subsequently minimising, asbestos-risk activities at the point of manufacture.

As Australia’s customs service, the ABF has made trade enforcement an operational priority.

The Department of Home Affairs and ABF continue to consult with industry about their obligations for complying with the asbestos border control.

Further information about Australia’s asbestos import prohibition is located on the ABF website.