Senate debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Workplace Relations: Silicosis

3:33 pm

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Senator Watt) to a question without notice I asked today relating to silicosis.

I was particularly troubled by the lack of any coherent response from the government regarding the insurance crisis in the industry and the impact that will have almost certainly on any worker who comes down with silicosis from this day forward and, indeed, going back to September 2020. It's a fact that the major supplier of dangerous manufactured stone in Australia is Caesarstone, and it's facing a global insurance crisis, leaving workers, fabricators and home renovators who contract silicosis from their product without any protection. I would have thought the government would be on top of that issue. Caesarstone is a company that's been allowed to recklessly travel down the same path as James Hardie did with asbestos, leaving thousands of injured fabricators and home renovators with a deadly disease and no insurance coverage to pay their claims.

In many ways, the risks are even greater with manufactured stone than with James Hardie. Manufactured stone producers have no production facilities or other assets in Australia to meet claims in the absence of insurance. James Hardie at least had assets in the jurisdiction. That means whenever Caesarstone thinks it's no longer profitable to be involved in the Australian market, they can cease operating, and given the lack of insurance there will be zero assets from which fabricators, home renovators or workers with silicosis can recover damages. They will be left with a deadly disease and no remedy at all. This is why the Greens have been calling for a ban since 2020. This is why we have supported the CFMMEU's call for a ban. This is a deadly product in an industry that has been allowed to run like cowboys.

Because of the known risk of silicosis litigation, Caesarstone has been unable to obtain any insurance coverage for silicosis related claims in Australia since September 2020. Most of the company's global insurance products actually have specific exclusions for damages related to exposure to hazardous dust, because the insurance industry has known for years about the deadliness of this dust.

We know this not because of Safe Work's work in the space. Safe Work has been saying, 'Oh, they can continue having the product, provided everyone wears a mask and they do wet cutting and they have additional filtering.' Safe Work has been complicit in allowing manufactured stone to continue to be used across the country. It has been complicit in thousands and thousands of workers being exposed to toxic levels of silica dust, leading to them contracting silicosis. Safe Work is part of the problem.

We know about Caesarstone's lack of insurance not because of Safe Work's activity in the space but because it's in the financial disclosures that Caesarstone gives to the US Securities and Exchange Commission. That makes it clear there is a complete absence of insurance. I'll read part of that disclosure from Caesarstone to the US securities exchange:

We currently have limited product liability insurance policies, which apply to us and our subsidiaries and cover claims related to bodily injuries though in most cases these policies exclude damages caused by exposure to hazardous dust.

That's what Caesarstone is telling the US authorities.

For example, as of September 2020 our Australian product liability insurance ceased coverage of newly diagnosed silicosis related claims. Such events might have a material adverse effect on our business and results of operations.

They've said it in black and white. And what has the Australian government done? Nothing to stop the product. What has Safe Work done? Nothing.

It is deeply offensive that when you read Caesarstone's reports the only thing they're concerned about is the cost of business. They don't once mention in their reports the likelihood—in fact, the certainty—of thousands and thousands of workers contracting silicosis because of this. Caesarstone also said this:

Since 2008, we have been named, either directly or as a third party defendant, in numerous lawsuits alleging damages allegedly caused by exposure to RCS related to our products filed by individuals (including fabricators and their employees, and our former employees), their successors, employers and the State of Israel, and in subrogation claims by the NII, WorkerCover of several states in Australia, and others.

As of December 31, 2021, we were subject to pending lawsuits with respect to 154 injured persons globally (of which 114 were in Israel, 38 in Australia and 2 in the United States) and had received pre-litigation demand letters with respect to additional 18 persons, in each case relating mainly to silicosis claims.

Since 2008 and through December 31, 2021—

(Time expired)

Question agreed to.


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