The long-awaited final report of the National Dust Disease Taskforce has been slammed for deferring action on occupational silicosis in stonemasons for up to three years.
Set up in 2019, the Taskforce’s report handed to health minister Greg Hunt on 12 July makes seven recommendations that critics say fail to take the urgent steps required such as a ban on the use of engineered stone.
Instead, the report recommendations a series of ‘wait and see’ measures until 2024, combined with a self regulation approach to safety standards for the stonecutting industry that produces artificial stone kitchen and bathroom benchtops.
The Taskforce’s report reveals alarming rates of silicosis in the stonecutting industry, with 229 of 1053 (21%) Queensland workers being diagnosed after screening, including 32 with a diagnosis of progressive massive fibrosis.
It acknowledged that current health and safety measures had failed to prevent silicosis in workers, but nevertheless it decided to ‘put the industry on notice’ rather than recommend a product ban.
Its recommendations include regularly monitoring of silica dust levels in the workplace and health monitoring of all workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica, and better support for medical professionals to improve the diagnosis and management of workers affected by silicosis.
Another recommendation calls for “operationalising the National Occupational Respiratory Disease Registry as soon as possible, with an initial focus on mandatory reporting of silicosis.”
“If the measures we have recommended do not achieve the expected significant improvements in worker safety within the next three years, then immediate action must be taken to ban the product,” the Taskforce report states.
The Lung Foundation Australia said it supported the Taskforce recommendations, but reasserted its call for a ban on the material within two years as “the most appropriate and effective alternative to stop the alarming resurgence of accelerated silicosis in the nation’s artificial stone benchtop industry.”
“We hope these regulations are immediately adopted by Federal, State and Territory governments to begin to tackle the escalating incidence of occupational lung disease,” CEO Mark Brooke said.
“Now that Governments at all levels are aware of the extent of the risk, the associated suffering and devastation to workers and families, a failure to act quickly is not acceptable.”
“Artificial stone benchtops are a luxury consumer product and if householder renovators knew they were endangering life and causing untold suffering, I am sure they would look to alternative and safer products.”
Law firms representing patients with silicosis went further in their criticism, saying the Taskforce recommendations fell well short of what was required.
“The Taskforce has had two years to make meaningful announcements on protecting workers, yet many of the final recommendations are nothing more than a call for further analysis or simply hoping for the best and that employers will improve workplace practices themselves to reduce silicosis risks,” said Maurice Blackburn Dust Diseases Principal Jonathan Walsh.
“We know that isn’t happening and hence the growing rates of silicosis in stonemasons and other silica exposed workers across the country – this final report was an opportunity to force action but it has fallen well short in protecting workers.”
He said the recommendation that industry and employers effectively self-regulate was a “toothless tiger” and it was already well demonstrated that such efforts were not possible.
“The report suggests a ban on engineered stone by 2024 if there is no improvement in safety compliance rates. 2024 is too late – it is already well established that the risks to workers’ health cannot be completely eliminated when cutting engineered stone products en masse.”
“The risks are abundantly clear, and so too are the unacceptable practices that continue in workplaces around Australia that cause silicosis.”