Building at Melbourne University

Union Theatre Asbestos Scare

By Erin Handley.

First published 5 September 2012 by Farrago.

Union Theatre has been closed to allow for the removal of asbestos in the ceiling. It is anticipated that the theatre will remain closed until the end of October. As many as eight productions were booked into the Union Theatre during this period and have been forced to find alternative venues.

On 10 August 2012, suspected hazardous building materials were analysed by LRM Global, an independent hazardous materials consultant. They found that asbestos was present in the ceiling space above Union Theatre and the projector room. Further analysis found that asbestos was also in the ceiling and internally within the projector room.

Further samples were taken from the Union Theatre stage and front of house for testing, but no further asbestos was discovered in these areas.

It is likely that those who have entered the ceiling spaces above Union Theatre will have been exposed to friable asbestos, Diane Spires, a University spokesperson for the OHS and Injury Management Department, confirmed.

“We are continuing to seek advice from the hazardous materials consultants as to the potential level of exposure,” Spires said.

When asbestos is crumbled or reduced to powder it can release airbourne fibres that pose a health risk. Friable asbestos can be disturbed by light pressure, while non-friable asbestos is unlikely to release airbourne fibres unless damaged by significant force, such as drilling or sawing.

She stated that so far “airborne asbestos fibre levels have not exceeded 1/10th of the occupational exposure standard.”

Productions previously booked into Union Theatre now seeking alternative theatres include Union House Theatre’s own 1938: An Opera, Ormond College’s Spring Awakening, Chinese Music Group’s December Rains, MU Chinese Theatre Group’s Sand and a Distant Star, St Mary’s College’s Back to the 80s, Queen’s College’s Fawlty Towers, the 2012 Med Revue: Lawrence of the Labia, and Flare Dance Ensemble’s Revelation.

Fregmonto Stokes, writer of 1938: An Opera, said that “obviously it’s a disappointment not to be able to use Union Theatre.” Despite this setback, he acknowledged “asbestos is such a notoriously dangerous material” and “if it’s discovered and it can’t be safely encapsulated it should be removed straight away.”

The opera has sought out a number of theatre options and will have confirmed one when Farrago goes to print. Stokes specified, however, that “the most important element [of the opera] is the cast, not the space.”
Further updates can be found at

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