The right to a healthy and safe working environment is a fundamental human right and essential to decent work. Every year 200 workers are killed in Australian workplaces with thousands more dying from diseases caused by their work. Unions understand that good, decent, well-designed work contributes positively to our health and wellbeing. Equally, poorly designed, insecure work that exposes workers to both physical and psychosocial hazards is harmful to our health and wellbeing and increases the burden of injury and disease.

Occupational disease in Australia is poorly understood. Unlike other comparable countries Australian jurisdictions, with one exception, do not even record deaths from occupational disease as workplace fatalities. As a consequence work health and safety policy makers rely on delayed workers’ compensation data which provides an incomplete picture of the extent of work-related injury and disease. This gross underestimate of disease means prevention activities are not taken or de-prioritised and workers remain exposed to harm.

The ACTU welcomes the opportunity to make a submission on the role and functions of an Australian Centre for Disease Control (CDC). Unions recognise the enormous task in establishing a CDC and support the initial focus on communicable disease, however, whilst the early detection and prevention of communicable diseases should be a priority for the CDC we should be aspirational in our goals and should, like they do in other countries, provide scope for the surveillance and research of occupational diseases. The ACTU supports a CDC with a mission that incorporates ‘all hazards’, and to be the “nation’s leader in health protection, prevention and promotion”. The promotion of work that is good for our health and the prevention of work-related ill health should be within the remit of a CDC.

Occupational disease will benefit from the multidisciplinary approach to research and surveillance offered by a CDC and lead to better understanding of occupational disease and improved prevention measures.

Finally, trusted public health advice has never been more important. Pandemic fatigue and the economic and social disruption that has occurred in combatting COVID-19 has undermined public confidence in institutions. Whilst the solutions to this are complex and require addressing multiple factors that have led to social and economic exclusion, we must safeguard important institutions to ensure they retain the trust of the Australian people. There is no more important an institution than that of a CDC that provides public health advice and information. It is critical that a CDC is established independent of government to provide evidence-based health advice to guide effective public health intervention.

The following submission will focus on the key questions and issues of scope in relation to a CDC and the need to include the research and surveillance of occupational disease, drawing on local and international evidence. We also take the opportunity to support and endorse the submissions made by the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) and the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH).