Senate debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2023

Matters of Urgency

Workplace Safety: Engineered Stone Industry

5:15 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Senate will now consider the proposal from Senator McKim, which is also shown at item 13 on today's Order of Business. Is consideration of the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

With the concurrence of the Senate, the clerks will set the clock in line with the informal arrangements made by the whips.

5:16 pm

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

At the request of Senator McKim, I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

A national ban on engineered stone has been recommended by Safe Work Australia to protect workers from deadly silicosis, it must be implemented nationally no later than 1 July 2024 since every day of delay means more workers dying, and no one should die for a shiny bench top.

I know there often things that divide this chamber—in fact, we've just had a debate on matters of national security and the like that divide this chamber—but surely something that is protecting the lives of young workers, that's saving families from the loss of breadwinners, and that's actually implementing recommendations from our national safe work authorities should unite our chamber.

The Greens have brought this motion calling on this house to support a national ban on the use and importation of engineered stone by no later than 1 July 2024 as a chance for this house to unite. It's a chance for politics to unite, to say that no longer should any young worker die and literally choke themselves to death as a result of silicosis simply so somebody can have a shiny benchtop. Tragically, that is what is happening in this country at the moment.

Thank goodness we've had a strong campaign from the construction union, the CFMEU, on this. I've been working with them for years in their push to get a ban on engineered and manufactured stone because they've seen their members die. Young members—tragically, many of them under 30—are being diagnosed with terminal silicosis because they've been working with the dust formed when they cut engineered stone. Engineered stone wasn't even available until 20 years ago, and we managed to have commercial fit-outs, kitchens and shiny benchtops before we started working with engineered stone. Almost all engineered stone is, in fact, imported. We know it's a product that is killing workers, from the dust created and inhaled.

Finally, in August of this year, after too much delay, Safe Work Australia put out their clear, unambiguous recommendation. It wasn't to hold off and wait. It wasn't to put more work health safety protections around. It wasn't to wear masks. It wasn't to do wet cutting. It was to ban the use of engineered stone. Why did they do that? Let's read from their recommendation. They said:

Engineered stone workers are dramatically over-represented amongst workers diagnosed with silicosis—the vast majority of silicosis cases identified in recent years are in engineered stone workers, yet they make up only 2% of those exposed to RCS

respirable crystalline silica—

at work. Exposure to RCS from engineered stone causes silicosis typified by a faster onset and more rapid progression than that caused by RCS from other sources, including natural stone. This has resulted in debilitating disease in young engineered stone workers, the majority of which are under 35.

Then they said:

There is no scientific evidence for a 'safe' threshold of crystalline silica content in engineered stone.

Finally, they said:

The increased risks posed by RCS from engineered stone, increased rate of silicosis diagnosis amongst engineered stone workers, and the faster and more severe disease progression amongst this group, combined with a multi-faceted failure of this industry to comply with the model WHS laws means that continued work with engineered stone poses an unacceptable risk to workers. The use of all engineered stone should be prohibited.

Well, let's do it, and let's do it now. Let's commit to doing it absolutely no later than 1 July next year.

We have heard at different times from the former coalition government that it wasn't a national issue. It absolutely is now, with this recommendation from Safe Work Australia. Given this product is almost entirely imported, the Commonwealth government could shut this industry down in a heartbeat with an importation ban and then a ban on its use. That's absolutely what we should do. When we see companies in this space, like Caesarstone, getting people like Hawker Britton—who we know have close connections to the Labor Party—to be their lobbyists in this place, warning bells go off. We need a clear commitment from the Albanese government, and I hope we get it, to ban engineered stone and to ban it no later than 1 July. We need the coalition to end their silence on this and, finally, to say clearly that no young worker should die at work because they or their mates want a shiny benchtop.

5:21 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

All Australians, regardless of their occupation or how they are engaged, have a right to a healthy and safe work environment. Silicosis is an awful disease, and we recognise the serious nature of the risks associated with excessive exposure to respirable crystalline silica. That's why the former coalition government took a leadership role on this issue, given the significant impact on workers and their families across this country. When in government, we established the National Dust Disease Taskforce as part of a $5 million election commitment to develop a national approach to the prevention, early identification, control and management of occupational dust diseases in Australia.

The former coalition government worked with the states and territories to develop a nationally coordinated all-of-government response to the taskforce's final report, which was endorsed on 4 April 2022. We supported the response with $11 million over four years as part of the 2022-23 March budget to respond to the non-regulatory recommendations made in the taskforce's final report. This funding supported an enhanced focus on prevention activities; improved support for affected workers and their families; upskilling and improving expertise and knowledge of medical professionals; and strengthening the evidence base and research capability. As a result of this report, commissioned by the former coalition government, the current government passed the National Occupational Respiratory Disease Registry Bill 2023. This established the National Occupational Respiratory Disease Registry, providing access to information about occupational respiratory diseases. It supports the identification of industries, occupations, job tasks and workplaces where there is a risk of exposure to respiratory-disease-causing agents.

The coalition remains strongly committed to reducing the incidence of silicosis and other dust diseases amongst workers, and to increasing the quality of life for affected workers and their families. Given our longstanding commitment to this issue and the extensive work undertaken while in government, we are happy to work with this government in ensuring the passage of legislation which creates the National Occupational Respiratory Disease Registry in response to the growing incidence of silicosis among Australian workers. The National Occupational Respiratory Disease Registry will play an important role in addressing the growing incidence of silicosis and other occupational respiratory dust diseases in Australia.

Of course, the coalition will carefully assess all measures the government puts forward in the near future. While all governments will have to respond to the Safe Work Australia report through the workplace health and safety ministers' meeting, the government needs to ensure appropriate consideration and compensation for smaller businesses and many self-employed Australians in jurisdictions that participated in licensing schemes and the changes in process they complied with, ensuring they're given the opportunity to recoup any expenses if a ban is brought forward by the workplace health and safety ministers' meeting. We will not pre-empt the recommendation from Safe Work Australia and, in the same situation, we should not pre-empt the decision of the workplace health and safety ministers' meeting.

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)

5:29 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No worker should ever get a terminal illness just because they rocked up to work. No worker should get a terminal illness because they installed the shiny benchtop that I was very excited about back in 2009. We hear that since 2014 people have been making a call on legislators right around the country to say this has to stop, and it has to stop now. I dread to think how many people in the time that artificial stone, or silica, benchtops have been around—I guess it's since the nineties; I can't quite recall how long—have unnecessarily acquired a fatal disease because we did not act soon enough.

While primary responsibility for work health and safety rests with the states and territories, that is no excuse for not taking a leadership position nationally and getting it done. When I asked questions at estimates in previous years, our national work health and safety agencies at the time said, 'We can't say anything about this because we are in the hands of the states.' To me that was a crying shame, because very clearly, based on the scientific evidence and the health research, they should have been able to say, 'It is clearly in the public interest to ban this product, and we would encourage the states and territories to do so.' There is no excuse not to play a leadership role to get this done.

The details of the national response, I understand, are going to be finalised on 13 December at a meeting between all work health and safety ministers, chaired by Minister Burke, because this has to stop but we also know we have to mitigate the risk of acquiring this disease from products that we can't ban. It might be silica dust from mines, quarries, roads, tunnel construction projects for public transport, cement, concrete and excavating. These are all projects and products that present a silica risk and where we have to be absolutely proactive in ensuring the highest standard of occupational health and safety, such as the wearing of masks and the use of extraction fans. In talking to the CFMMEU just yesterday, I heard a story about a woman who had acquired silicosis just from working in reception at a quarry. Perhaps the extraction fans out the back weren't going and she was particularly susceptible, or perhaps there's a large cohort of people who have been exposed in a workplace like that.

Unions around the country—the CFMMEU, the AMWU—have worked very hard on this. They had a recent win in seeing Bunnings, in response to silicosis, make the call to stop selling engineered stone by the end of the year. They're now calling on Ikea to do the same. The states and territories have unanimously agreed to our government's recommendation to fast-track consideration of a ban on unsafe engineered stone. I expect the logical conclusion to this would be also to ban its import, because if it's not a legal product here then we need to make sure we also stop it at our borders.

Finally, we have to keep moving on preventing this kind of disease into the future. When someone renovates or demolishes my house in the future, that benchtop will be there—just like the painted-over asbestos in the laundry. We will have to continue to innovate in how we regulate this product for many years to come, just like we do with asbestos. We've got to have safe disposal of it and we've got to stand up for workers. (Time expired)

5:35 pm

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of Senator McKim 's matter of urgency. It has been estimated 600,000 Australian tradies are exposed to silica dust every year. The stone benchtop industry is only one of many ways Australians can be exposed to silica dust. Like asbestos, it only takes a little to kill you. Silica dust is 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, and you can breathe it in without even knowing it. Exposure to asbestos took us so many years to do anything about. Exposure to silica will take just months for symptoms to show, unlike asbestos. Silicosis is not new and there have been many state and federal inquiries, but, as usual, governments have been slow to act.

According to the Australian Lung Foundation a lack of government investment in research and monitoring has made it impossible to work out how many Australians are suffering from silicosis. That is why Senator Pocock and I wanted to split out the silicosis amendment from the Closing the Loopholes bill, because it brings silica in line with asbestos and would start gathering national data. The average age of a silicosis sufferer is 35, and at 35 many would have young families. Many would more than likely be our young sons and daughters, and to have a diagnosis at that age would be utterly devastating.

In October Safe Work Australia released its report on silica. It recommends a national ban on engineered stone benchtops and a special licensing scheme for the handling of existing benchtops. It also said no level of silica is safe—not one bit—for tradies. The unions are united. Senator Pocock and I stood with representatives to call for a ban, and retailers are getting on board. Bunnings has banned it and Ikea has announced they are scrapping their stone benchtop range. We know there is a problem when retailers and the unions are moving ahead and the government is sitting on the perch.

When the Safe Work Australia report was released a month ago, Minister Burke said the government should 'act as soon as possible for people to be safe'. Well, I am wondering what the minister has been doing besides wasting time blocking his own legislation from going through the House. It is time that our federal government placed a national ban on engineered stone. There is no excuse not to. It is just rubbish. You have Labor states all over the place. Fix the problem. It can't be that hard. It has taken 100 years to do something about asbestos and you cannot waste another minute. But what is more disappointing is this is the national issue. I wonder if you have bothered to take it to national cabinet and discuss it, because, seriously, when you have all those Labor states out there, there is no longer an excuse for not getting this job done. Once again, this is another one that could have been done before Christmas time. Once again, you are sitting on the perch when it comes to safety of others in workplaces.

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.

5:42 pm

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

As Senator Barbara Pocock said, on 16 August, Safe Work Australia handed down their unambiguous decision: engineered stone is killing Australians, and these deaths are entirely preventable. What we need is some political will and some political courage to make this happen. The government can and must act now to ban engineered stone in Australia, including a full import ban. It's rather ironic that two of the senators the government accuses of not caring about workers by taking the time to look through the IR bill are the part of the crossbench pushing the government to put workers first here. Act now.

On 14 November, my crossbench colleagues and I wrote to ministers calling on them to take this one simple action to save lives. So far, we've had one response, from the Tasmanian government. I'd like to thank Minister Ogilvie for her response and for her government's support for a prohibition on engineered stone. We wrote to nine ministers, and we've received one response. Eight of those ministers are from Labor governments. We've heard from the Liberal government. Bunnings and Ikea have acted on this. What are we waiting for, as politicians, as legislators—as decision-makers? How many more young Australians need to lose their lives? We've surely learnt from the tragedy of asbestos. We now have the data. We have the recommendation. It's time to act. I thank the Greens for bringing forward this motion. I thank the crossbench for their work on this. And I call on the federal Labor government to show leadership with an import ban and to work with states to ban engineered stone across the country.

Question agreed to.