Preventing dust diseases: strengthening the protections for workers

Preventing dust diseases: strengthening the protections for workers

Introduction

Since 1927, the ACTU has been the only national confederation representing Australian unions. We have played a leading role in advocating for improved wages and conditions for Australian workers and have participated in the development of almost every regulatory measure concerning worker and trade union rights during that time. The ACTU consists of 43 affiliated unions and trades and labour councils from across the country, representing approximately 2 million workers from all major industries, occupations and sectors.

The protection and enhancement of every worker’s fundamental right to a safe and healthy working life has always been, and remains, a core goal of the ACTU and its affiliates. The ACTU welcomes the opportunity to make this submission to the National Dust Diseases Taskforce.

The re-emergence of diseases such as silicosis and coal worker’s pneumoconiosis are symbolic of the systemic failure of our regulatory system to prevent, identify, control and manage occupational diseases, and especially dust diseases, in Australia. It is estimated that over 5,000 Australians will die each year from diseases caused by their work. Whilst many of these deaths are directly related to the failure to eliminate and control the use of asbestos, an increasing number of workers are dying due to diseases such as silicosis and other occupational diseases. It is a national disgrace that in a country as rich as Australia that in the last few years we have seen more than 250 workers diagnosed with silicosis and a further 111 diagnosed with dust diseases in the Queensland coal industry.

It is also symptomatic of a failure of governments, both state and federal, to implement the recommendations of countless inquiries over the course of the last 20 years, and whilst we welcome the renewed attention that this subject is receiving with the establishment of the Taskforce, we caution against ‘re-inventing the wheel’ when it comes to solutions. Many of the recommendations called for in this submission are not new, they have been recommended by multiple inquires and supported by numerous experts in both work health and safety and the medical profession.

The solutions to prevention and identification lie within the system of laws and regulations governing work health and safety and the role that workers, unions and regulators play in enforcing them. Whether it be bans on dry cutting, reductions to workplace exposure standards (WES) or improved awareness campaigns that highlight the dangers of exposure to dust, it is direct engagement and intervention in workplaces that our attention should be focussed on.

Whilst solutions aimed at the control and management of dust diseases also intersect with our work health and safety system, including our workers’ compensation systems, it also extends to the broader heath system and its capacity to diagnose and track the outbreak of occupational disease.  This includes the need for a government managed register of disease to ensure we are able to identify these outbreaks earlier and direct both preventative and control measures more quickly, through to the process that sufferers of disease are expected to go through in terms of seeking support and compensation.

This submission will focus heavily on the prevention and identification measures that governments can take to stem, and eventually eliminate, the growth and prevalence of silicosis and other dust diseases. It will highlight the importance of our work health and safety system to each of these elements. It will draw on a range of sources, with particular attention to those from Queensland, given the advanced state of the disease and research from that state with now in excess of 1,000 stone masons screened.

In preparing this submission, the ACTU has carefully considered the Discussion Paper and consulted with our affiliated unions. In light of the scope of the review, there may be a need for further information in relation to some of the recommendations made. We would be happy to provide further information on request, and we look forward to an ongoing constructive engagement with this important review process.

The ACTU supports the submissions made by individual unions and Trades and Labour Councils.

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