A national dust diseases taskforce will be set up to tackle the epidemic of silicosis in workers in the stone cutting industry.
Federal minister for health Greg Hunt has made a $5 million pledge towards the task force following renewed calls from peak bodies including Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ).
TSANZ was joined by the Lung Foundation of Australia, the RACP, the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists and the Australian New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM) in calling for a national occupationally acquired respiratory disease surveillance and registry program “to address the public health crisis facing the artificial stone benchtop industry”.
Silicosis has been described by respiratory and occupational health specialists as the biggest lung disease crisis since asbestosis, deserving a rapid and comprehensive government response. Already more than 100 stonemasons have been diagnosed with silicosis in Queensland, and it is likely that more than a thousand nationally remain undiagnosed.
In response to these alarming statistics, the RACP and TSANZ have called on the major parties to commit to urgently establishing a Commonwealth-sponsored Dust Disease Taskforce, with the responsibility of leading and coordinating a national response to the epidemic.
According to Mr Hunt’s announcement the new National Dust Diseases Task Force will be made up of medical professionals, researchers, and representatives from government and industry to be chaired by an eminent medical expert.
It will be tasked with reducing the number and severity of occupational respiratory diseases, with a focus on the rapidly increasing incidence of silicosis arising from the manufacture and installation of artificial stone bench tops.
The taskforce will begin in July and deliver its report to the COAG Health Council by the end of 2020, Mr Hunt said.
Professional bodies have previously called for the adoption of a five point plan, with all the elements apparently adopted by the government’s task force proposal.
- Respiratory health assessments of all workers (past and present) in the industry
- An urgent review of the dust control measures used in the industry, including independent monitoring of dust levels
- Comprehensive enforcement of hazardous substances regulations related to silica dust exposure
- Enforcement of an immediate prohibition on dry cutting techniques
- A national occupationally acquired respiratory disease surveillance and registry program.
Melbourne respiratory physician Dr Ryan Hoy, one of the clinicians leading the lobbying efforts, said the announcement was a welcome result following lengthy ongoing discussions with all political parties.
“It’s something we’ve been advocating for, for quite some time … so it’s great there’s actually some response to that now and that they’ve identified it as a major health issue that needs resources,” he told the limbic.
Although the Labor Party had yet to make any policy statement on the issue yet, Dr Hoy said he anticipated a statement from them this week with both the party and the union movement well aware of the issue.
Dr Hoy described the government’s $5 million allocation as an important starting point but added it “will need much more resources” to counteract the lack of awareness around silicosis and how widespread it is.
National leadership and urgent action are needed to mitigate the severity and impact of the disease in the at-risk population, he said.
“Early identification, even before symptoms have developed, and avoidance of further exposure to silica dust are absolutely crucial.”
In the wake of the Federal Government announcement, the Victorian state government said it would begin a “compliance and enforcement blitz” targeting over 300 high-risk workplaces with a focusing on stonemasonry workshops.
Victorian workplace safety minister Jill Hennessy announced the state would introduce free health screening for the state’s 1400 stonemasons, introduce a new compliance code for businesses working with silica, launch an awareness campaign and ban uncontrolled dry cutting.