Public health

Silicosis tragedy highlights system failure: review

A national register to record cases of work-related dust disease and a system to prevent workplace silicosis are among strategies recommended by a parliamentary review.

In findings handed down last week, the NSW Legislative Council’s First Review of the Dust Diseases Scheme’s final report made five recommendations to deal with the problem of occupational lung disease in that state, including the “urgent” establishment of a taskforce to consider regulation to protect workers in the manufactured stone industry, following a spate of silicosis cases in the state.

The inquiry heard several workers involved in Caesarstone manufacture had been diagnosed with the disease, despite existing legislation, with one awaiting a lung transplant.

“The return of any occupational disease is deeply troubling and the fact that silicosis is occurring to such a degree in our society is evidence of a significant failure in our work health safety regime,” the report said.

The committee also signalled support for a national register to record cases of occupational lung disease – which the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) say is needed to address the dearth of data – but stressed buy-in from stakeholders across the country must be secured if it was to succeed.

There was also a recommendation for the NSW Government to consider establishing a statutory internal appeals panel to review decisions about Dust Diseases scheme eligibility, and two recommendations aimed at improving claims processing.

But the committee stopped short of endorsing an expansion of the definition of work-related lung disorders eligible for government compensation in NSW, which proponents had argued was needed to stop many with life-threatening conditions missing out.

There are 14 dust diseases for which workers can receive financial and health care support under the state’s icare scheme and 95% of the 4000 on the scheme have an asbestos-related condition.

The definition is based on legislation dating back to 1942.

Both the TSANZ and law firm Maurice Blackburn argued it was out-of-date and did not reflect the risks emerging in modern workplaces, with TSANZ calling for the inclusion of occupational asthma, all occupational-related lung cancers, dust-induced pulmonary fibrosis, COPD related to dust, fume and mist exposure, and work-related pneumonia related to occupational exposures.

During hearings in June, the inquiry was told that expanding the definition of dust diseases could pave the way for a flood of expensive common law damages claims.

The NSW Government is due to respond by next February.

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