Senate debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2023

Matters of Urgency

Workplace Safety: Engineered Stone Industry

5:24 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Perched on the end of his chair and struggling to breathe, 56-year-old Dinh Tran uses all his strength to point to the table to his left, 'They are my friends,' he says, referring to the bottles of bills waiting in line to relieve him of some of the pain and anxiety. The other hand pats an oxygen tank. 'I see them every day; they're all my friends,' he smiles wryly. Tran is dying of silicosis, an incurable, preventable, work related lung disease which was caused in his case by inhaling tiny particles of crystalline silica dust released every time he cut ground and shaped engineered stone, such as Caesarstone, into kitchen benchtops and bathroom vanities.

In August last year, doctors told him he had eight months to live. It was never his plan to end his days like this. His world is reduced to a few rooms in his home, tethered to an oxygen tank, and he is unable to find the words to tell his children their father is dying. In an article reliving Tran's experience, Adele Ferguson wrote:

When he left Vietnam and signed up for work at Exquisite Marble & Granite in Sydney's western suburbs, he had no idea it would kill him.

Engineered stone and the consequences are a real threat to so many Australians who are now suffering both the indignity and the consequences of this poorly regulated, poorly oversighted and poorly engaged substance. As we know, primarily constitutionally, the occupational health and safety requirements of the states and territories play a pivotal role in any arrangement in dealing with this terrible disease. And it's important that we have a response from across the states and territories. As part of those detailed responses to this horrific disease, there's a meeting of ministers on 13 December between all workers health and safety ministers, chaired by Minister Burke.

The consequences of this horrific disease have led to a number of initiatives, including $10 million over four years to address silicosis; $4.2 million to expand the functions of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency; the national dust disease registry, which goes to critical issues and detection and prevention activities; $1.2 million for Safe Work Australia social partners; and $4.7 million over four years for the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations to progress ongoing reforms.

There's nothing you can say that can take away from the horrific statistics, as a study last year by Curtin University found. Nearly 500,000 workers were exposed to crystalline silica at work,10,000 Australians could develop lung cancer due to exposure, and 103,000 Australians could develop silicosis. We look at the history of the investigations, the whistleblowing, the industry concerns, the work of the CFMEU construction union, the Australian Workers Union, the health experts and the organisations over a long period of time. We look back to June 2014, when there were opportunities to make a change. A report written by a stonemason was handed to the then minister, Eric Abetz, calling for action on the dangers of engineered stone. It took five years to act—of course, we have the National Dust Disease Taskforce—while unions, workers, families and workgroups all campaigned for action.

Graeme Edwards, a former member of the National Dust Disease Taskforce, has been warning of the dangers of silicosis since 2018. When you compare that with what the opposition is well known to do—delay, delay, delay, when it comes to workers health and safety, or represent those who actually diminish workers health and safety— one person who was in this parliament always comes to mind, Julie Bishop. She was the CSR representative. She was a person who stood up and said, when questioned about her representation on disadvantaging people in asbestos— (Time expired)


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