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NSW silica inquiry should cover every worker

January 31, 2022

The NSW Government 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.

In a submission to the NSW Legislative Council Review Standing Committee on Law and Justice, the AWU says Australia is facing an epidemic of deadly silicosis, partly due to the growth in popularity of artificial stone products (also known as “engineered stone”).

The joint submission, made on behalf of AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton and AWU NSW Secretary Tony Callinan, mirrors the union’s earlier successful involvement with the National Dust Diseases Taskforce last year.

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

Silicosis – dubbed the new asbestosis – is a fatal, but preventable, lung disease caused by exposure to high levels of silica dust.

The AWU says that 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.

Mr Walton says it is disappointing that the NSW committee has restricted its inquiry’s scope to the manufactured stone sector, and should look to the National Dust Diseases Taskforce’s recommendations.

“The incidence of silicosis in industries outside the engineered stone bench-top industry has extraordinarily bad potential, as there are approximately 600,000 Australian workers currently exposed to silica dust,” Mr Walton says.

“Stone masons – the sole target of this inquiry – 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 for the purpose of this review and any subsequent recommendations.”

The AWU says that with the projected increase in larger civil construction “mega-projects”, the problem of workplace dust illnesses will only increase.

“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 to protect workers exposed to silica dust,” Mr Walton says.

The NSW submission says there needs to be a stronger regulatory framework that captures workers in all industries, and suitable workers’ compensation laws that provide ongoing financial support and compensation.

It says the NSW Dust Strategy seemingly takes the view that the current silica epidemic is just a compliance issue that can be fixed by safety inspections and audits.

Yet most states have changed their regulations to protect workers from the specific risks of silica dust exposure – beginning in the engineered stone industry and increasingly for all industries.

The AWU wants NSW regulations to provide protections for all workers involved in high-risk silica work, based on the Victorian model, which developed regulations that define high-risk silica work, and require clear and concise standards for those running the business or undertaking to meet in order for work to begin, and for work to cease if risk assessments and hazard statements are not complied with.

The Dust Diseases Scheme must also give greater consideration for the stressful situation that a positive diagnosis puts workers and their families through.

NSW workers diagnosed with silicosis are paid a pro-rata pension to reflect their level of disablement from their silicosis and how much exposure they have had in the state.

This means they can be paid a greatly reduced pension which then, after the first six months or 26 weeks, is dropped back to the minimum wage that could be further pro-rated.

The AWU says NSW must ensure:

  • Full financial compensation is provided for more than 26 weeks, until a worker with silicosis finds alternative employment or receives common-law compensation.
  • Ongoing health and medical support, including mental health support, for all workers and their immediate family

Other recommendations include:

  • NSW immediately adopt and provide funding for High-Resolution Computed Tomography screening for all workers exposed to silica dust.
  • WHS Act and Regulations be amended to provide health and safety representatives with rights equal to Safe Work inspectors, for the purpose of addressing silica exposure on site and to allow HSRs’ representatives to prosecute employers directly for non-compliance with minimum safety benchmarks.
  • Clear and severe penalties for breaches of the minimum safety benchmarks.

 

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