The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) has accused the Federal Government of bowing to industry pressure by leaving thousands of workers at risk of developing the deadly lung disease silicosis.
The AWU says preliminary reforms recommended by the Government’s National Dust Disease Taskforce will only provide extra protection for stonemasons, excluding the construction industry, miners, quarry workers, and tunnellers.
AWU National Secretary, Daniel Walton, said it took decades for the truth to come out about asbestos and it would be a disgrace if history was to repeat itself.
“The lives of tens of thousands of workers – miners, tunnellers, tradespeople, and more – are being put at risk by companies who put profit ahead of worker safety and get away with it.”
“We know what’s needed to prevent people from dying from this horrific disease. But the Federal Government just wants to tinker around the edges,” he said.
“What’s currently on the table makes no sense. If we can make workplaces safer for one group of workers, why not make it safer for everyone?”
The AWU has launched a new campaign, Silica Kills, calling for tougher national regulations with minimum benchmarks that protect all workers exposed to the deadly silica dust, warning that unless action is taken now Australia will be hit with a tsunami of workplace deaths.
The call includes stronger enforcement of regulations and tough penalties for breaches of minimum benchmarks, along with a comprehensive health monitoring program and a compensation fund.
The AWU believes the interim recommendations from the Taskforce currently fall “criminally short” of what is needed and must be strengthened before its final report is published in June this year.
Leading dust diseases law firm, Maurice Blackburn, has shown support for the AWU’s calls for tougher national regulations to protect all workers from deadly silica dust.
Maurice Blackburn Principal, Jonathan Walsh, said the Government’s lack of urgency in addressing the issue is threatening the lives and livelihoods of many thousands of workers.
“I’ve said previously the reforms recommended by the Government’s National Dust Diseases Taskforce’s interim report are pathetic and weak,” Mr Walsh said.
“Workers are dying but the Federal Government is effectively sitting on its hands instead of moving quickly to ensure the health and safety of workers.”
“It is not enough for the Government to focus only on engineered stone when we know that other workers, such as miners and tunnellers can be similarly exposed to highly dangerous levels of silica dust and develop chronic or fatal lung conditions,” he stated.
“All Australian workers should have what is known to be best practice when it comes to safety in their workplace – their lives and their families’ wellbeing shouldn’t be up for negotiation.”
“Surely, Australia can do better than that.”
Silicosis sufferer and mother of two Joanna McNeill from Victoria has backed AWU’s Silica Kills campaign by starring in a video to share her story.
“It’s the unknown which is so terrifying,” said the 34-year-old, who was diagnosed last year whilst working at Boral Quarry in Montrose.
“What I have since learnt about silicosis is that there is no cure and you just don’t know how it will progress. At the moment I am feeling healthy, but I don’t know if that will be the case in one year, let alone five or ten years and as a mum of two young daughters that terrifies me.”
“We desperately need tougher laws to ensure that other workers don’t end up with this terrible disease. I don’t want any other family to have to go through this,” she said.
Mr Walton added: “It’s an outrage that a country like Mexico has stricter laws in relation to workplace silica dust exposure than Australia, and it’s no exaggeration to say that unless we act now more people will die and more families will be torn apart.”
It’s estimated around 6 per cent of all Australians are exposed to silica dust each year. Last year more than 350 people were diagnosed with silicosis.