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AWU calls for greater accountability as National Taskforce releases Dust Disease Report

August 5, 2021

After an extensive consultation process, the National Dust Disease Taskforce has published its final report, which will advise the Federal Government’s upcoming legislative reform.

The Taskforce’s brief was to develop a national approach to the prevention, early identification, control, and management of occupational dust disease in Australia.

When oil, sand, and granite are worked on during blasting, crushing, cutting and drilling, in construction and associated industries, tunnelling, quarrying and mining, crystalline silica is released as fine dust.

About 600,000 workers are exposed to silica dust every year, with about 350 diagnosed with silicosis and 250 with lung cancer.

Initially, the report’s recommendations were intended to only cover stonemasons, less than 5% of the total number of workers exposed to silica dust each year.

However, after an extensive campaign by the AWU and the union movement, including visits to Canberra, consultation with the Taskforce, and extensive training across the country, the scope of the final report has been widened to include all industries with exposure to silica dust.

While the AWU welcomes the broadening of the report’s scope, there are still significant concerns that proposed reforms around compliance and compensation will not be enough to hold employers to account.

Encouragingly, the report recommendations include:

  • A nationally consistent health monitoring program to be established, based on the Victorian Health Monitoring Program (currently the best in the country);
  • A dust register, mandatory for all diagnosed cases of silicosis and voluntary (to move to mandatory overtime) for all respiratory illnesses caused by silica dust.
  • Better support for workers and their families affected by dust diseases through individually tailored programs of psychological, financial, and return-to-work support.
  • Investment in training of medical specialists to better understand silica-related disease, and education and awareness across the industry of silica dust exposure.

However, the AWU demands the following measures be included in future legislation:  

  • An established compensation fund to support workers and their families suffering from silicosis and other dust diseases. This compensation should be funded by employers and industry and accessible to all workers affected.
  • Nationally consistent regulations on silica dust exposure in the workplace, detailing minimum safety benchmarks, with tough penalties on employers who fail to comply with these standards.

“In order to truly protect workers from this toxic dust, these regulations must be strictly enforced,” says AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton.

“Without harsh penalties for non-compliance, and with a reliance on self-regulation within the industry, there is a significant risk that more workers will be exposed to silica dust.”

“Currently, victims of silicosis have a woeful lack of financial and psychological support as they battle this debilitating, fatal disease.”

“The companies responsible for exposing workers to this toxic substance need to pay up. The Government must ensure that employers in these industries fund a compensation scheme accessible to all workers impacted by dust diseases.”

After the report was handed down to Health Minister Greg Hunt, Daniel Walton, AWU officials, and silicosis victims visited Mr Hunt to discuss the outcomes of the report.

AWU member and silicosis victim Joanna McNeil told her story to Mr Hunt personally, and made it clear that no other worker should suffer what she has.

“It’s the unknown that is so terrifying,” Joanna says. “With silicosis, there is no cure, and you just don’t know how it will progress.”

“I fear this will affect my life and my family’s life, and I am angry. I should never have been exposed to this disease.”

Minister Hunt has indicated that the Federal Government will finalise recommendations by the end of the year.

The AWU will continue to work with Government to ensure this once-in-a-generation opportunity for legislative reform will protect and support all workers affected by silicosis and other dust diseases.

Support our campaign and sign the petition to protect workers from silicosis and provide fair compensation to victims and their families.

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