Senate debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2023

Matters of Urgency

Workplace Safety: Engineered Stone Industry

5:38 pm

Photo of Barbara PocockBarbara Pocock (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

The Labor government and this parliament must listen to the voices of Australian workers, their families and the experts and immediately ensure a national ban on engineered stone. Australian workers are dying when they cut the engineered stone for our bathrooms and kitchens, and why? Because that stone contains up to 95 per cent silica dust and this silica dust causes silicosis. Silicosis, while entirely preventable, is an irreversible disease resulting in permanent disability and death. It is an occupational lung disease caused by breathing in small particles of silica dust. When breathed in, this dust is a small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, causing permanent lung damage. While not a new disease, incidences of silicosis have risen with the popularity of engineered stone benchtops and there is no known cure. There are so many devastating testimonies on the public record from Australians affected first-hand by this preventable disease. Alan from Brisbane was diagnosed with silicosis at the age of 43 and just wants to be around to see his grandkids grow up. Joanna from Montrose, Victoria, a 34-year-old mother of two girls, was diagnosed with silicosis. She is angry there were no signs or warnings in her old workplace to tell workers of the dangers of exposure to silica dust. Thirty-four-year-old Alan from Victoria was diagnosed with silicosis along with three other workers from his quarry on the same day. These are just some stories from the more than 600 workers in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland currently diagnosed with silicosis. The use of silica is widespread in many Australian industries, and more than half a million Australian workers are currently exposed to this deadly dust. Of these workers, modelling predicts that over 100,000 will be diagnosed with silicosis, and 10,000 Australians will develop lung cancer as a direct result of this exposure. This is unacceptable, and it's entirely preventable.

We've known the devastating impact of engineered stone on workers' health for years now. The CFMMEU have been calling for urgent national action since 2020 with their Stop this Killer Stone campaign, clearly calling for a ban on the importation and manufacturing of engineered stone. Now Safe Work Australia, as our country's workplace safety watchdog, has recommended a prohibition on the use of all engineered stone, irrespective of its silica content, to protect the health and safety of workers. They say that a comprehensive ban will reduce illness and death, increase the quality of life for workers, avoid health system costs and improve workplace productivity. A national plan is not just needed but long overdue. Primarily a state issue, our work health and safety laws are inconsistent across jurisdictions. State based regulators have failed to effectively police workplaces to guard against this danger. Urgent reform is needed.

Health and safety professionals, medical practitioners and trade unions are all calling for a ban on the importation and manufacture of imported stone, as are the National Dust Disease Taskforce, the Australian Medical Association, the Lung Foundation Australia, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Australian Institute of Health & Safety and many unions, including, of course, the ACTU. When will the Labor government act? The government have taken a positive step in the closing loopholes bill but have not gone far enough. They must take the lead on banning the importation and manufacture of engineered stone, saving the lives of countless Australian workers. There is a clear appetite—we can see it here in this chamber this evening—for this change. Every day of delay means more workers die, and no-one should die for a benchtop. Every death from silicosis is a preventable one, and I call on the Labor government to ban this deadly product now.


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