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WHS Ministers commit to model reforms to protect workers from deadly silica dust

March 1, 2023

The Australian Workers’ Union is celebrating a major milestone win on their Silica Dust Kills Campaign.

This week, Employment Minister Tony Burke and his state and territory counterparts agreed to establishing new nationwide laws that will help mitigate widespread silica dust exposure among those employed in tunnels, quarrying, construction and mining.

The AWU has long pushed for regulatory change for high-risk crystalline silica processes in all industries, compulsory training for workers, and companies to be forced to undertake regular air monitoring, with breaches reported to work health and safety regulators.

Safe Work Australia has now been tasked to consider how such laws will be adopted in the model WHS Regulations – which will then be adopted by relevant state and territory governments.

But while this is welcome, the AWU has vowed to maintain pressure on Safe Work Australia and State and Federal Governments to ensure all industries working with silica dust are made safe.

This is because every day around 600,000 Australian workers are exposed to hazardous silica in mines, quarries road and tunnel construction projects, in the manufacture of cement and concrete and excavating.

This week Mr Burke signaled he was listening.

“We have now tasked Safe Work Australia to do the work to scope out what regulation is required for all workplaces that deal with silica dust,” he said after the meeting.

AWU National Secretary Dan Walton says the union has long pushed for regulatory change.

“This is a historic step forward for everyone who has campaigned for tougher laws on silica exposure,” Mr Walton said.

“So many brave workers have stepped forward to tell their story, despite many facing incredibly challenging circumstances in their personal lives. Their courage and their generosity helped drive this week’s outcome.

“For far too long, major construction companies such as John Holland have been able to get away with a shoddy, inadequate, and frankly unethical approach to silica dust management.

“They have blocked union officials from bringing dust monitors underground. And they’ve regularly sent workers into tunnels with poor ventilation and dangerous levels of dust.”

Mr Walton said the new laws would go a long way toward forcing a change of behaviour and culture in construction and tunnelling, but “we are not there yet”.

“The AWU has been fighting for this change for many years and we will not rest on our laurels now,” he said.

“Far too often powerful vested interests are able to throw sand in the gears of our political process to delay — or even prevent — reform for workers’ safety.

“But they should know the AWU won’t rest until these laws are in place and our members are protected when they do their vital work underground.”

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