The ACTU and affiliates have consistently raised concerns regarding the exposure of workers to harmful dusts, including submissions to the Senate Toxic Dust Inquiry in 2005. The Inquiry’s Executive Summary noted that:
Many Australian workers have suffered potentially harmful exposure to toxic dustbecause of poor work practices and slow response by regulators. Identifying the extent of illness related to toxic dust is difficult because the datasets are not compatible and most rely on workers’ compensation data. Workers’ compensation data is limited in scope as it does not record work-related illness that is of less than five days duration and does not record unsuccessful claims.
Added to the limitations of the datasets is the impact of the long lag time for some dust related diseases to be diagnosed. This often means that disease is blamed on lifestyle factors such as smoking rather than workplace exposure to toxic dust. It is for this reason that the importance of regular health surveillance of employees, including lung function tests and X-rays, was emphasised in evidence.
The national occupational health and safety framework comprises Commonwealth and State and Territory legislation. While the regulatory system has been developed to ensure worker safety, some problems were identified including the timeliness of implementation of changes to the regulatory regime, the enforcement of regulations, particularly in small industries, and ensuring that all workers are aware of the dangers of exposure to toxic dust. There is also considerable debate about the national exposure standards for crystalline silica and beryllium with calls for the crystalline silica standard to be reduced by half and the beryllium standard to match that published in the USA.
Workers must not be left waiting for another 16 years before governments and those with control of workplaces adopt measures to protect their health.
The ACTU recommends that Safe Work Australia use the research findings of Professor Fritschi and Dr Renee Carey, The future burden of lung cancer and silicosis from occupational silica exposure in Australia: A preliminary analysis, April 2022 (Curtin Report).
The predictions contained in the Curtin Report are the foundation of the ACTU response to the CRIS and consequently our response is brief.