Update 28 Feb 2023: The Federal minister for workplace relations Tony Burke says he has gained agreement from states and territories ministers to get Safe Work Australia to work on regulations for a national ban on engineered stone that is responsible for the silicosis epidemic.
But critics say the six month scoping exercise does not go far enough, and are renewing calls for an immediate ban until safety could be assessed.
Respiratory health groups have backed union calls for a complete ban on the use of high-silica engineered stone products that cause silicosis.
A joint statement issued by groups including Lung Foundation Australia, Thoracic Society of Australia and NZ and the Australian and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine, urged the Federal and state governments to eliminate exposure to the products that generate respirable crystalline silica (RCS), which have led to a resurgence in silicosis among workers in the kitchen benchtop industry.
“The increase in cases of silicosis clearly demonstrates the lack of awareness and failure to effectively control harmful exposures to RCS,” the statement said.
“As experts in health, disease prevention, and occupational health and safety, we believe that it is essential that governments and employers adopt policies and programs to systematically control exposure to RCS, including implementing a ban on the use of high-content silica engineered stone products.
The statement urged governments to consult on the introduction of a ban on the use of engineered stone to be implemented by July 2024.
The health groups also called on governments to partner with, and support unions, employers, and professional organisations to develop and implement a national awareness and behaviour change campaign.
Other recommendations in the statement included support for wide ranging silica regulation to control supply chains in industries such as mining and quarrying, and increased enforcement activity in engineered stone and other high-risk silica processing sectors.
Associate Professor Jane Bourke, Head of Respiratory Pharmacology, Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, and Fellow of the TSANZ said silicosis is not only affecting stonemasons but also workers in construction industries including quarrying and tunnelling of sandstone.
“There is no evidence that engineered stone can be used safely – the only way to protect workers in stonecutting industries is to ban the use of this high-risk product ”
Lung Foundation Australia is currently seeking feedback on the draft National Silicosis Prevention Strategy 2023-2028 and accompanying National Action Plan, with public consultation open to Friday 10th March 2023.
A recent 60 Minutes report showed up to 100,000 tradespeople could develop silicosis after being exposed silica dust, leading to renewed calls from unions for action to prevent workplace exposure.
The Australian Workers’ Union, the CFMEU, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions launched a campaign on 22 Feb calling for urgent regulatory action.
“With health experts, unions, and even manufacturers now calling for a ban on high-silica engineered stone products the federal government has no reason not to act immediately to ban their importation into Australia, the CFMEU said in a statement
It said Health Minister Mark Butler’s preferred option was to monitor the government’s existing silica mitigation strategy, but CFMEU National Secretary Zach Smith said the evidence supported decisive action to be taken immediately.
“We know that every month we allow workers to be exposed to the dust created by engineered stone products we are sentencing some of them to death. And we know we could easily start phasing these deadly engineered stone products out of circulation with the stroke of a pen,” he said.
“I note that the Prime Minster, the Workplace Relations Minister, and a range of other government figures have indicated they are open to fast-tracking a ban in light of the shocking damage engineered stone products cause. They need to pull the trigger this month.”
The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) is also calling for urgent reform to protect workers in other sectors such as tunnelling from silicosis.
It said construction companies were making it difficult for unions to bring dust monitors on site and check if workers’ are being exposed at any given time.
“Our members are working in environments so dusty they can’t see more than 50 metres in front of them. They’re getting covered from head to toe in dust and they walk out with that dust on them which continues to spread,” said AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton.
“We also know it’s common for companies to operate for days despite ventilation breaking down. We know sites where water suppression is non-existent. And we know flimsy or damaged face marks are being regularly offered as PPE.
“Companies should also have to automatically supply all dust monitoring results to the regulator and union promptly, instead of the drawn out process that exists today.”
Mr Walton said other reforms were also necessary to save lives.
“Right now companies know they can pretty much get around the exposure rules with ease and there is no real penalty if they get it wrong,” Mr Walton said.