It has been several months since the 23rd World Congress for Health and Safety was held in Sydney, pictured above. A major benefit of attending occupational health and safety (OHS) conferences is meeting people, old and new. I was honoured to meet Rene LeBlanc, an occupational hygienist from Canada. We had dinner on a very rainy and stormy Sydney night, and Rene agreed to an interview. Below is an edited version of part of that conversation (it was a long dinner). Rene was wide-ranging on his OHS topics.
The heads of Australian work health and safety authorities have decided to ban engineered stone from the middle of 2024. Some will seed this as a win for the trade union movement ( the unions certainly will), but many occupational health and safety and industrial hygiene professionals have been leading the way in obtaining the research evidence that made this decision such an easy one to make.
“a prohibition on the use of all engineered stone, irrespective of crystalline silica content, to protect the health and safety of workers.”
So that should be it. No more engineered stone products for use in Australia. Apparently, that decision is difficult to make even though the top occupational health and safety (OHS) advisory body in Australia recommends prohibition. OHS has always had an uncomfortable mix of morality, law and politics. Engineered stone and its inherent silicosis risks are a good illustration of the tensions between these three elements.
It’s been years since I have seen anything in the Australian press about companies or individuals being penalised for asbestos contamination. That despite workers telling me since being back in Australia, they have suspected asbestos when demolishing older domestic, cultural and industrial structures or even while digging shallow excavations in preparation for construction or mining.
It seems like Australian fashion for deregulation may have bitten into OHS.
The calls for banning engineered stone‘s importation are curious and likely to be acted on later this week.
Politicians, unions and some OHS associations have undertaken a risk assessment and determined that elimination is the most effective harm prevention strategy. Previous risk assessments of silicosis have been reported on in this blog for some time without banning the material. The risks have not changed even with increased inspection and enforcement. So what has changed? Politics.
Australia has yet to offer a good reason for hazardous engineered stone products not being banned from import and use. On November 23 2022, Australia’s most influential construction union, the CFMEU, stated that it would ban these products from mid-2024 if the Federal Government does not. Trade unions no longer have the level of influence or numbers to achieve these sorts of bans. As with asbestos many years ago, such campaigns risk taking more credit for the potential occupational safety and health reforms than they deserve.
In late December 2019, Dr Graeme Edwards provided an update on Australia’s silicosis situation to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s PM program in which he mentions the movement of businesses to avoid occupational health (OHS) and safety obligations and duties.