Runny or blocked nose? Coughing? Irritation of the eyes and skin? Sneezing? Watery eyes? Wheezing? Even asthma attacks? Congratulations! You must work in the basement of the University of Sydney’s Wentworth Building.
Over the past few years, the Students’ Representative Council has reported several mould and leak issues to the University, the most recent of which in Honi’s home in the completely unventilated Langford Office. Numerous past and current workers in the SRC have suffered serious health ramifications from working in the Wentworth basement, to the extent of chronic lung damage. Even though the University “plans” to demolish the Wentworth Building in late 2025, Honi questions why the Students’ Representative Council has not yet been moved.
Honi spoke to Carmeli Argana, who edited the paper with CAKE in 2022. Argana was diagnosed with chronic breathing issues during her term as an Editor, and experienced “ongoing, really disruptive coughing fits” that made it impossible for her to work in the Wentworth basement. Doctors informed Argana that the environment of the Honi office was to blame, and prescribed her asthma medication. Argana’s sleeping patterns were interrupted, and she would wake up coughing in the middle of most nights; she also told Honi that following her term, her respiratory system became more susceptible to allergens.
Argana was not the only affected CAKE Editor. Her colleague, Zara Zadro, labelled the mould a “contributing factor to the terrible headaches and fatigue” and the “nausea and stomach aches” that she experienced throughout the year, particularly after fifteen-hour layup days. Argana and Zadro were forced to work outside, separated from the rest of their team, and Argana, as a young woman relegated to public space “so late at night”, condemns the safety risks that this caused.
The current Editors share CAKE’s sentiments. The majority of us suffer symptoms in the days following layup: sore throats, headaches, congestion and coughing. A serious concern, though, is how the asthmatic Honi Editors have been affected — our asthma has significantly worsened since we began our term as Editors. Following Sunday layups, we wheeze for almost the entirety of the week; further, over the winter break and far away from the office, our symptoms disappeared. The cause-and-effect relationship here is obvious.
Who is responsible for ameliorating the mould situation in the basement? Lia Perkins, President of the Students’ Representative Council, confirmed to Honi that pursuant to an agreement between the SRC and the University, it is the University’s responsibility to provide the SRC with a safe workplace. Following New South Wales’ Health and Safety Act 2011 and Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017, the University and the SRC are likely to be considered “persons conducting a business or undertaking”, or PCBUs. In this role, both parties bear a non-transferable duty to “eliminate safety risks so far as is reasonably practicable”, and if this is not possible, “minimise risks so far as is reasonably practicable”.
Honi is confident, and grateful, that the SRC is doing what is reasonably practicable to minimise safety risks. The SRC has organised mould testing and thorough cleaning of the Honi office, provided clear advice as to preventing dust issues that might worsen asthma symptoms, assisted the team with filing incident reports, applied for replacement room bookings so that we are not obliged to use the office, and they have been in regular communication with us to reach a safe, practical solution.
What is not reasonably in the SRC’s power, though, is to eliminate safety risks: this is the University’s responsibility. Perkins confirmed that the University has treated past instances of mould in Wentworth’s basement, citing the “resource space, legal service rooms, and to an extent the President’s office due to their proximity to the Wentworth cooler room.” She said that mould in those areas is no longer present, and that following more recent reports of mould in the Honi office, the SRC is retesting the rooms. However, Honi questions the extent to which mould treatment is just a band-aid solution from the University, especially on a building intended for demolition.
In a statement provided by the University, they stated that they have engaged a “specialist provider to undertake regular inspections and treat any issues as they arise.” They further encouraged Honi to run our air conditioner — thanks. Notably, the University is charging us for booking a replacement layup room: it is outrageous for the University to demand payment for a safe workplace.
The treatment that the SRC deserves, and the obvious solution that will completely eliminate safety risks for its workers, is relocation. “In February, the University approved the move to our office space through SSAF (Student Services Amenities Fee) Infrastructure,” Perkins said. “I have met with them twice now, but have consistently been told that ‘there is no space on campus to move us to’.” The University’s statement, however, seems to indicate a backpedal on what Perkins labelled an “approval”: they stated that the SRC office relocation is merely on a “shortlist” of not-yet-approved SSAF Infrastructure Projects, as the “process of scoping and considering suitable relocation options” continues.
The University’s statement also appears to indicate that Wentworth’s demolition is still up in the air. They “expect to submit a business case for approval next year,” and are clear to phrase their claim hypothetically: “if the project progresses, work would take place over 2025-2027.” This not only fails to account for how workers can safely remain in the SRC between now and 2025, but renders unclear when demolition will actually take place.
If the basement of the Wentworth Building is no longer a safe workplace, and if the SRC’s future in Wentworth appears to be indefinite, the University must provide us with prompt relocation: to neglect to do so is to clearly abrogate the duty of care owed to us. The Editors of Honi Soit would really like to breathe easy, and only the University can fix that.
If you currently work or have worked in the Wentworth basement, and have been negatively affected by mould issues, please contact the SRC.