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AWU members lead the fight to protect workers from deadly silicosis

February 25, 2021
(Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this story contains the image and name of an Indigenous person who has passed away.)


Workers whose lives and families have been destroyed by silica dust exposure have made impassioned pleas for the Federal Government to do more to recognise their plight.

Workers with silicosis and their family members, appeared before the Federal Government’s National Dust Disease Taskforce this week at a meeting in the office of the ACTU in Melbourne.

The Taskforce has so far recommended protections that will only apply to stonemasons, leaving workers in the construction industry, miners, quarry workers, tunnellers out in the cold.

The Australian Workers’ Union is calling on the Federal Government to protect and support all workers exposed to silica dust not only workers from one industry.  The Union is also calling for a national regulation setting out minimum benchmarks to protect workers, with tough penalties for employers who fail to comply and a compensation fund for workers and their families who are living with the devastating impact of silicosis.

All the workers at the Taskforce hearing gave accounts of similar issues: dirty, dusty workplaces, inadequate dust mitigation, lack of PPE, training and support.

Joanna McNeil, a 34-year-old mother of two from Victoria, broke down as she told the inquiry how her work at a Boral quarry destroyed her health and the impact it has had on her family.

“I constantly feel stressed and anxious due to the uncertainty of knowing how long I have to live, whether or not I will be able to see my children grow and be with them. I feel angry and frustrated at my employer for failing to protect workers’ health.”

Joanna gives evidence to the Taskforce


Another witness, Michelle Iorangi, a 40-year-old Brisbane mother of six, also wept as she spoke to us of her once active husband’s rapid decline and death after working at a Brisbane powder coating company.

She said the business had little in the way of dust prevention. “He would often return home covered in a thick layer of silica dust and would hug the kids. He would have to use dishwashing liquid to wash off the powder as soap by itself did not remove it off the skin,” Michelle said.

A 2015 X-ray identified lung scarring. Nako’s condition progressed quickly, and he died in 2019.

“The whole journey has been very difficult for my family. He was only 42. My children and I can never be with him again and we can never be a complete family again.”

Nako Iorangi with his children

Also addressing the Taskforce, Michelle’s brother-in-law, Guyson Baker, echoed her despair.

“As an active father and a social person who played rugby, did fishing with the family and helped his wife with household duties, my brother could not do anything after diagnosis,” Guyson said.

“Due to the lack of workplace health and safety protections my brother lost the opportunity to live, to see his children grow, to spend his retirement with his wife, to see his daughter marry and to see his grandchildren.”

The disease is as fast as it is insidious, with one witness telling how her health was destroyed in less than six months.

Sally*, aged 50, worked 12 hours a day on a large construction site, in a very dusty environment.

“The company did not monitor the levels of dust/silica dust exposure. It did not have any air ventilation/extraction systems in place. It failed to provide workers with appropriate PPE,” she said.

“I am unable to walk long distances or walk up the stairs,” she said. “I have breathing difficulty, cannot bear the cold as my chest gets tight and continually need to take medication.

“I have also been affected psychologically as I cannot stop thinking about my health and its impact on my family.”

The Taskforce heard from several other witnesses, in person and through witness statements. All told how their health had been ruined, and of family and financial stress because they could no longer work.

Kevin and his wife, Debra. Kevin was diagnosed with silicosis in 2019.


Jamila Gherjestani, AWU National Health and Safety Director, helped members address the Taskforce and read witness statements for those unable to attend.

“The recommendation to limit the scope of workplace changes to stonemasons must be broadened to include all workers,” Jamila said. “I told the inquiry we fought for two decades with James Hardie in the battle for compensation – this is the next asbestosis.

“The Taskforce has until June 30 to finalise its recommendations for reforms, so it is essential we convince it to change its mind.”

(* Sally’s name has been changed as she fears repercussions from her employer.)

Please sign the petition today, and support our campaign to protect all workers from deadly silica dust. 

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