Thursday, 24 June 2021
If there is one lesson that we all should have learnt from the years of dealing with asbestos, it's that delay doesn't help and that parliament and governments need to act as soon as they know about the risk. At the moment the government's National Dust Disease Taskforce has an interim report recommending inquiries into stone benchtops. That's important. But, can I tell you, the dangers of silicosis and silica dust go way beyond stone benchtops. Let's not make the mistakes that were made with respect to asbestos and asbestosis, and miss the opportunity to act when people are dying.
Yesterday I met with the Australian Workers Union national secretary, Daniel Walton, and with AWU members Joanna McNeil, Kevin Weekes and Craig Robertson—and Kevin Weekes was accompanied by his wife, Debra. Joanna, Kevin and Craig have all contracted silicosis. How have they contracted it? By turning up for work. They're all suffering from the debilitating symptoms of this incurable disease.
Silica is a natural mineral. So is asbestos. Silica is found in sand, stone, rock, granite and concrete. When the materials are worked on in mines, quarries, tunnels and road construction, during cement and concrete manufacturing, small silica dust particles that can't be seen by the naked eye are released into the air and can cause irreversible damage to the lungs when inhaled. It's not just stone benchtops. Each year 600,000 Australian workers are exposed to silica dust. Every year approximately 350 workers are diagnosed with silicosis—350 workers diagnosed with this because they turned up for work—and 230 workers are diagnosed with lung cancer. In addition to silicosis and lung cancer, silica dust exposure can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, affecting lung function, and kidney disease and renal failure.
These three people were here in the gallery earlier today. When you think of someone taking on a terminal illness at work: Joanna McNeil is 34 and a mother of two girls. She contracted silicosis at a quarry in Montrose, Victoria. She now lives with uncertainty. When you have someone sitting in your office casually chatting about their worst fear—that she won't be alive to see her girls grow into adults. Kevin told the story of being told, when he was diagnosed, 'You shouldn't panic, but do you have your affairs in order?' He's resigned himself to the fact he'll never work again, after being diagnosed with silicosis at the age of 60.
Silica dust exposure can ruin lives. It is extremely dangerous. It's a threat to the safety of workers far beyond the stone benchtop industry. For all the speeches that happen in this place about people who work in road construction, tunnelling, mining and quarrying, can we add to the list 'caring about these workers to make sure they don't die at work'? At the moment the investigation is only going to happen into the stone benchtop part of it. There's no investigation happening into the deaths that occur in road construction, tunnelling, mining and quarrying. If those people get silicosis, it's not like the disease treats them differently because they aren't in the stone benchtop industry.
These members are fortunate that they've got a union looking after them, in the AWU. It is advocating for Joanna, Kevin, Craig and affected workers. We need urgent action to protect workers exposed to silica dust and to support workers living with silica dust related disease. I remember many members of this parliament making speeches by the time we got to the point of acting on asbestos, and by that time a whole lot of Australians had died. There will be many diseases that people can't avoid. There are many times that disease and sickness catches up with you. The disease and the reason for someone's death should never be because they had a job and turned up for work, but that's what's happening.