Silicosis – “we need to licence the industry and we need to regulate the product”

Last year the Scientific Meeting of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM) had a fiery discussion on the occupational health and safety (OHS) risks of cutting engineered stone.  The status has changed a lot over 12 months with various Codes of Practice, new exposure limits, a National Dust Disease Taskforce and lobbying from Erin Brockovich.  However the risk of worker exposure seems too have not changed this much because it is employers who are responsible for safe workplaces and there are many layers of OHS-related communication between research and practical application.

Dr Graeme Edwards (pictured above) spoke first in the ANZSOM panel on October 29 and he came out with all guns blazing.

“Prima facie evidence of system failure. That’s what accelerated silicosis means. It is an entirely preventable disease.”

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Scientific Meeting challenges

There is a difference between a conference and a scientific meeting. The latter, like the current meeting of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM), provides evidence.  The former tries to provide evidence but is often “infiltrated” by salespeople or the evidence is of a lesser quality.  Both are avenues for gaining information and sometimes the gaining of wisdom.

Day 1 of ANZSOM’s annual scientific meeting was heavy on overhead slides, graphs, Venn diagrams, flowcharts and at least two appearances of photos of Donald Rumsfeld!  There was a curious thread in several presentations – the role of non-occupational factors on workplace hazards and interventions.  This bordered on a discussion of political science and its relevance to occupational health and safety (OHS).  It was a discussion that is rarely heard outside of the basement of the Trades Halls and the challenging questions from die-hard communists and unionists, but it was an important one.  Some time soon we deserve a one-day seminar on the politics of workplace health and safety so that we can better understand what we mean by the lack of political will when we whinge about the slow pace of change. (There will be more on this theme in the exclusive interview with Professors Maureen Dollard and Sally Ferguson soon)

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Australian Greens push for ban on engineered stone to eliminate silicosis risks

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Greens MPs in Australia are increasing the political pressure to ban engineered stone from Australia because of the difficulty in eliminating silicosis risks.

On October 18, 2019, Greens MP David Shoebridge released a statement calling for the ban. Greens MP in South Australia Tammy Franks spoke in Parliament on October 16 2019, also calling for a ban on engineered stone. This and other action from other Members of Parliament are in response to inaction on the national level, partly due to occupational health and safety (OHS) being regulated by the States rather than the Commonwealth.

But as with the current controversy of thoroughbred horses being killed for export and pet food, the Federal Government is in charge of exports and imports, so could make the decision to stop imports of engineered stone. It is not as if there are not safer substitutes

The Greens in Western Australia have not called for a ban but have supported a reduced exposure standard.

David Shoebridge MP

Shoebridge was responding to reports in The Australian ($) about New South Wales government plans to reduce silicosis risks, saying they:

  • Do not remove the risk of silicosis by banning the use of manufactured stone
  • Fail to expressly ban dry cutting, which is the most dangerous way in which the product is currently used
  • Will not prevent workers in the industry being exposed to potentially lethal silica dust with even the reduced exposure standard not being implemented for three years, and
  • Fail to put in place the right screening to identify cases of silicosis as early as possible.

Tammy Franks asked the Minister for Industrial Relations and Treasurer Rob Lucas, about government action on silicosis risks in Parliament on 16 October, 2019 (video available). Curiously, Lucas indicated that an Italian manufacturer of engineered stone is producing a version with a much reduced silica content, so imports could continue but of a safer product.

More on the science behind the politics next week when SafetyAtWorkBlog reports from the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine in Adelaide.

Kevin Jones

Business Leaders hear about the Vic Government’s OHS achievements, and about OHS is the Arts

Cameron Ling and Claire Spencer (top) and Natalie Hutchins (below)

October is Australia’s workplace safety month. It operates under different names in different States, but they all started on October 1 2019. These months are almost exclusively about marketing and SafetyAtWorkBlog’s Inbox has received a lot of generic statements about the importance of occupational health and safety (OHS) but with little information about how to improve it. The best we can do about this is to seek knowledge in some of the physical events and seminars scheduled during October.

On October 2 2019, WorkSafe Victoria held a Business Leader’s Breakfast at which there were two featured speakers – the Parliamentary Secretary for Workplace Safety, Natalie Hutchins, and the CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne, Claire Spencer. Hutchins spoke about the occupational health and safety achievements of the Victorian Government and Spencer spoke about the significance of the Arts Wellbeing Collective. They provided a good mix of politics and practice.

Hutchins spoke about

  • Silicosis
  • Hazardous Chemicals and Dangerous Goods
  • Workplace Manslaughter Laws, and
  • Mental Health.
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Time to ban synthetic stone

Professor Malcolm Sim of Monash University spoke at the 2019 National Work Health and Safety Colloquium on an issue that he never imagined he would be speaking of, at his age, silicosis.

As it is in several countries, the emergence of silicosis related to synthetic stone is gradually getting the attention of governments as more, and younger, workers are starting to die from this aggressive occupational disease. Professor Sim outlined the risk of handling this new type of stone by asking:

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