Good progress, but………

The Australian Government is starting to address the silicosis risk associated with engineered stone. The Health Minister, Greg Hunt, has said in a media release on January 23 2020 that the government will accept all five recommendations of the interim advice of the National Dust Disease Taskforce. However, some of these seem half-hearted and some actions will take a long time, which does not necessarily help those workers currently at risk.

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OHS law could prevent the psychological harm of sexual harassment

The prevention of psychological harm generated by sexual harassment has been a recurring theme in the SafetyAtWorkBlog. It is heartening to see similar discussions appearing in labour law research.

An article, published in the Australian Journal of Labour Law, called “Preventing Sexual Harassment in Work: Exploring the Promise of Work Health and Safety Laws” written by Belinda Smith, Melanie Schleiger and Liam Elphick strengthens the role that occupational health and safety (OHS) laws can play in preventing sexual harassment and its harm.

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What is needed is a discussion of the “safe system of business”

By the time you read this, one of Australia’s States may have Industrial Manslaughter laws. One sad part of all of the IM argy-bargy is that it has focused on the penalty of going to jail rather than on the enhancement of occupational health and safety (OHS) which can prevent harm. Part of this seems to be because people are uncertain how to talk about OHS. For instance, some arguing against IM laws have started talking about making these laws fair. But fair to who?

Recently the Australian Industry Group released a media statement titled “Industrial manslaughter legislation must be fair“. Firstly, although the IM Bill is a piece of legislation, it is not an Act or Regulation in itself. It is an amendment to the existing OHS Act. But this Act and its Duties hardly gets discussed in the current debate, which is a bit curious but convenient.

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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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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