WA's oldest university has been forced to pay compensation to five employees who contracted deadly asbestos-related disease, as experts brace for a surge in claims from tradespeople and home renovators.
Since 1998, the University of WA has settled five claims from workers who developed mesothelioma, including one last year involving a technician who has since died.
Several claims were linked to the physics and chemistry buildings, which one source told _The Weekend West _were full of asbestos in the 1970s because of the amount of insulation and padding for equipment such as Bunsen burners.
UWA said most of the employees had previous exposure to asbestos but the details of the settlements remained confidential.
As recently as four years ago, asbestos was still a worry for UWA, despite the old chemistry building being demolished in 2006.
A WorkSafe prohibition notice was issued in November 2007 after inspectors found employees and others could be exposed to crumbling asbestos fibres because of renovation work on the first floor of the physics building's north wing.
In a statement this week, UWA said it had used a licensed asbestos contractor to remove all asbestos products from the area before the renovations resumed.
"The university acknowledges the presence of asbestos-containing materials in some of its older buildings constructed prior to 1980," a spokeswoman said. She said UWA had an asbestos-materials register that was independently reviewed every five years.
The Asbestos Diseases Society and lawyers Slater and Gordon said that while new compensation claims related to Wittenoom had levelled off, more tradespeople (the so-called second wave) and home renovators (the third wave) were coming through their doors.
ADS president Robert Vojakovic said because of the long latency time between short-term or low-level exposure and people becoming sick, many cases were only just emerging.
Experts say the peak of the second wave is not expected until 2020 and it is unclear when and at what level the third wave will hit.
Lawyer Tricia Wong from Slater and Gordon said she had handled several claims for UWA workers, including a technician, an electrician and an employee who helped fit out offices and lecture theatres.
"We've also had some recent settlements against hospitals and other tertiary institutions," she said.
"We're getting a lot of new inquiries and the main change in the landscape is that we're seeing fewer of the Wittenoom workers because the mine shut down in 1966 and fewer James Hardie factory workers with the factory closing down in the 1980s.
"The numbers are certainly still coming through and we're seeing lots of home renovators and also tradespeople such as electricians who had to drill into asbestos cement walls, plumbers and carpenters."
Cancer Council Australia's occupational and environmental cancer risk chairman Terry Slevin said there was still a pressing need for better education about asbestos risk for workers and do-it-yourself homemakers.
"The council feels strongly that it needs to be actively involved in this area because we still have a long way to go in the DIY market," he said.
"But there also needs to be substantial improvements in training for tradespeople like electricians, plumbers and construction workers who commonly come across asbestos but don't know how to deal with it, particularly the new generation coming through."
Mr Vojakovic said payouts in Australia could blow out after landmark cases in the US, including a Californian man recently awarded $48 million, including $18 million in punitive damages, after a jury found his employer knew asbestos caused cancer at the time he was exposed to it.