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Curtin University study backs AWU’s alarm at extent of workplace silicosis health risk

July 18, 2022

The Australian Workers’ Union’s long-running campaign to highlight the dangers of silica dust has been vindicated by a new Curtin University study that confirms more than 10,000 Australians are now likely to develop lung cancer from their exposure to the dust.

The AWU has argued Australia is facing an epidemic of silicosis, a fatal, but preventable, lung disease caused by exposure to high levels of silica dust.

The Curtin University study, commissioned by the ACTU and released this week, confirms that while engineered stone – used mainly for kitchen benchtops – is a potent source of silica dust, silica is also found naturally in building and construction products including sand, soil, stone, concrete and mortar, as well as bricks, tiles and glass.

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 engineered stone.

AWU National Secretary Dan Walton said while those in the engineered stone sector must be protected, they were the tip of the silicosis iceberg.

“About 600,000 Australian workers are currently exposed to silica dust,” Mr Walton said. “Stone masons make up 4400, or less than 1 per cent, of that total.

“Workers are exposed to silica dust in tunnelling, quarrying, cement work, mining, construction, and other industries and 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.”

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.

The 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.

Victoria’s OHS regulations were updated last year, with solid input by the AWU, to provide greater protection to all Victorian employees working with respirable crystalline silica.

The Curtin study notes that for the past 60 years silicosis had been very rare in Australia, but it had since reemerged and up to 103,000 workers will now be diagnosed with silicosis as the result of their current exposure to silica dust.

“Curtin University agrees with what we have been saying, that more than half a million Australian workers are facing silica dust exposure across various industries including construction, mining and quarrying, and manufacturing jobs,” Mr Walton says.

“Unlike most other state regulators, WorkSafe Victoria and the Victorian Government have taken solid steps to deal with this life-threatening issue.

“But workers in other states still do not have the same protections.

“It’s time Safe Work Australia and all state regulators adopted similar regulations to Victoria’s to protect all Australian workers in all industries.”

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