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New VIC regulations against silicosis should be rolled out nationwide

May 5, 2022

Key steps on the road to worker safety in Victoria this month should be mirrored nationwide when dealing with silica dust.

Australia is facing an epidemic of silicosis – a fatal but preventable lung disease caused by exposure to high levels of silica dust – partly due to the growth in popularity of artificial stone products (also known as “engineered stone”).

The AWU has campaigned at a state and federal level with extensive evidence that shows risks associated with silica dust are not just confined to the engineered-stone sector.

While crystalline silica levels in manufactured stone are typically 93 per cent or higher, silica levels in sandstone range from 70 to 100 per cent, cement and mortar from 25 to 70 per cent, granite typically 30 per cent, and slate from 20 to 40 per cent.

Victoria’s OHS regulations were finally updated last year to provide greater protection to all Victorian employees working with respirable crystalline silica. AWU Victorian Branch has participated in the development of the Victorian Silica Regulations and Compliance Code.

AWU Victorian Branch Secretary Ben Davis says the AWU is now calling on all state regulators to adopt similar regulations at future Safe Work Australia meetings.

“Unlike most other state regulators, WorkSafe Victoria and the Victorian Government have taken proactive steps in relation to this issue,” Mr Davis says.

“These laws are an Australian first, and include the most comprehensive set of regulations for silica dust in the country.

“But workers in states outside of Victoria will not have the same protections.”

The amendments mean Victoria will now:

  • Introduce Australia’s first licensing regime for engineered stone, including increased manufacturer and supplier duties;
  • Make permanent Victoria’s prohibition on uncontrolled dry cutting of engineered stone; and
  • Add additional regulatory oversight of high-risk crystalline silica work outside of engineered stone across all industries, including the construction and earth resources industries.

The changes also define high-risk silica work and require clear and concise standards for the person conducting a business or undertaking (‘PCBU’) to meet in order for work to commence, and to allow for work to cease if risk assessments and hazard statements are not complied with.

From May 15, the Victorian legislation will also focus on specific products and practices which include:

  • Identifying and controlling high-risk crystalline silica work (outside of engineered stone) and the intent of risk assessments when identifying high-risk silica work to allow duty holders the chance to show that their crystalline silica processes are not high risk in that particular circumstance;
  • Provide information to job applicants and employees on risks associated with exposure to crystalline silica dust, as well as the measures required to control those risks.

The focus on all dust-prone industries, not just engineering stone, was a key element in last year’s AWU submission to the National Dust Diseases Taskforce.

That taskforce’s final report expressly accepted the AWU’s extensive evidence and recommended systemic change to improve protection for all people working in all dust-generating industries.

AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton says the AWU has long argued that while those in the engineered stone sector must be protected, they are the tip of the silicosis iceberg.

“There are approximately 600,000 Australian workers currently exposed to silica dust,” Mr Walton says.

“Stone masons make up 4400, or less than one per cent, of that total.

“Workers exposed to silica dust in tunnelling, quarrying, cement work, mining, construction, and other industries must be given equal consideration when it comes to action to protect workers from silica dust.

“We will see a tsunami of silicosis in the coming years and decades if swift preventative, regulatory and compensatory measures are not quickly adopted by governments around the nation to protect workers from exposure to silica dust.”

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