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60 Minutes investigates disease killing Australian workers

February 20, 2023

National media has finally woken up something Australian unions – spearheaded by the AWU – have been warning about for years; silica dust is at risk of killing thousands of workers.

A joint investigation has revealed how an almost total disregard for worker safety by employers and regulators has created a problem that rivals earlier generations’ asbestosis.

60 Minutes talked to a number of stonemasons whose lives and those of their families has been ruined by our love of shiny benchtops, after engineered stone flooded the market in the late 1990s.

Silicosis is a fatal, but preventable, lung disease caused by exposure to high levels of silica dust.

Engineered stone contains 80% silica, which can be released when it is cut, and its widespread use has created a global epidemic.

But the program showed how risks associated with silica have spread through a range of industries including tunnelling, quarrying, cement work, mining and construction.

Last year, the National Dust Diseases Taskforce’s final report expressly accepted the AWU’s extensive evidence that risks associated with silica dust are not confined to the engineered-stone, and recommended systemic change to improve protection for all people working in all dust-generating industries.

AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton told 60 Minutes dust exposure limits were regularly being breached around the nation.

“The infrastructure boom is impressive but comes with a hidden cost,” Mr Walton says.

“Taxpayer dollars are hard at work but unfortunately are exposing tens of thousands or possibly hundreds of thousands to deadly dust every day.

“We know with these tunnel jobs racing along and with a pipeline of work, construction companies are doing everything they can to get these jobs done as fast as can.

“But we know that when people rush to get things finished quickly corners are cut, they turn a blind eye to problems, and safety is clearly one of these issues.”

Speaking on 60 Minutes, AWU member and tunneller Craig Bennett confirmed he has silicosis.

Craig, who has worked in tunnels for 30 years, is now on one of Brisbane’s biggest infrastructure jobs and says a growing number of tunnel workers are being diagnosed with silicosis.

“It’s a silent killer, and there are lot of out there have been diagnosed – I could name 10, but there are many more.”

He says its especially bad when tunnelling through sandstone, which is 90% silica.

“You can feel it, and at times taste it, and when you get to the surface and look at your mask it’s black, and when you pull it apart you can see it has penetrated it.”

Craig’s experience mirrors those of dozens of brave AWU members who have previously shared their stories.

Last year the AWU told the NSW Government it must widen the scope of reviews and recommendations to its Dust Diseases Scheme to include every worker in all dust-prone sectors, including tunnelling, quarrying, cement work, mining and construction.

60 Minutes found NSW was one of the worst offenders when it comes to workplace dust, with WorkSafe NSW cited as being particularly weak.

The AWU backed this up with evidence to the 60 Minutes team of at least one employer – construction giant John Holland – trying to make the dust problem go away by banning monitoring on the $16.8 billion Sydney WestConnex site.

This came after AWU monitoring on site found alarming problems, with poor ventilation and dust levels up to three times higher than existing weak workplace standards.

But there is hope union pressure is bringing change.

For example, last year Victoria’s OHS regulations were finally updated to provide greater protection to all Victorian employees working with respirable crystalline silica.

The AWU Victorian Branch played a key role in the development of the new Victorian Silica Regulations and Compliance Code.

Dan says urgent change is needed to Australia’s WHS laws. “Regulations around dust diseases need to strengthened dramatically.”

“It’s not happening at the moment, and as a consequence, there are so many workers being exposed every day of the week.”

You can sign the petition and support the campaign here.

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