Border Force boat crews at risk from lead and Legionnaires contamination

The CPSU says the Australian Border Force’s Marine Unit put crews at unnecessary risk by putting operational requirements ahead of health and safety while dealing with lead and Legionella bacteria contamination on its fleet of Cape Class patrol boats.

Border Force has advised the CPSU that five of the Marine Unit’s eight Cape Class vessels have so far tested positive for lead contamination, either in the drinking water tanks or elsewhere. Legionella bacteria has been found on one boat.

The Cape Class boats were built by Western Australia based company Austal, with a phased introduction beginning in 2013.

CPSU Acting Deputy Secretary Brooke Muscat-Bentley said: “Lead and Legionnaires contamination to the Cape Class boats has obviously caused some significant stress and concern for our members working in the Marine Unit. The fact the lead has been found in the fresh water systems obviously adds to that worry, though blood tests so far have not detected dangerous levels of the heavy metal.”

“This situation has been made significantly worse because of how ABF management handled the issue in the early stages. They didn’t adequately communicate with staff or the union about the extent of contamination, and it appears their key priority was to keep these boats at sea rather than ensuring the health and safety of their crew. That’s an unacceptable approach, which is why we’ve been pushing for some weeks to ensure the well-being of staff comes first and DIBP are now putting in mitigation measures to deal with this issue.  

“The CPSU only became aware of lead contamination in these boats when a member contacted us to say they had heard rumours of the lead issue. Border Force should have been far more proactive in notifying the union and crew members as soon as the first traces of lead were detected, and the lack of communication has undermined the confidence of staff in how the situation’s being handled.”

“The CPSU has escalated this matter to senior levels in Comcare and we are continuing to push DIBP to ensure that they comply with their obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act.  We are in daily contact with affected members and work health and safety representatives and we will continue to push hard on this issue until we are satisfied there is no risk to our members.”

“We’ve been able to ensure blood testing has been made available to all affected crew members, and Border Force did eventually agree to guarantee that boats will not deploy if unsafe levels of lead are detected in on-board drinking water.”

“Despite the progress that’s been made we still believe not enough is being done to establish the source of the lead contamination on the Cape Class boats. Flushing the drinking water tanks alone does not address the risk that lead continues to make its way into drinking water supply. Our members spend 28 days at a time on these boats, totally reliant on the on-board water, so it’s important that water remains safe throughout their time at sea.”