HON MATTHEW SWINBOURN (East Metropolitan) [11.29 am] — without notice: I move —
That this house notes the increasing number of cases of silicosis being found in construction workers arising from them working with engineered stone products and the continued need to remain vigilant about protecting workers from this fatal industrial disease and to provide continuing support to those who have contracted it.
Comments and speeches from various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [11.54 am]: I thank Hon Matthew Swinbourn for bringing this important motion to the attention of Parliament. This is exactly the sort of issue we need to be debating because silicosis is a terrible lung disease. There is no doubt that it represents a significant emerging and devastating crisis for people who work in industries where they are exposed to silica dust.
It was only last month that I got up in this chamber to speak about the devastation that silicosis is wreaking. There are now 260 confirmed cases of silicosis across Australia: 166 in Queensland—that is considered to be because of the boom in the building of apartments in particular—61 in Victoria; 23 in New South Wales; five in Tasmania; and one each in the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia. UnionsWA reports that Western Australia has five confirmed cases of silicosis. It is highly likely that these numbers represent only the tip of the iceberg. The full extent of those people who will have contracted what is a very severe, chronic and often terminal lung condition is yet to be known.
Of deep concern is that the Queensland case numbers have more than tripled since last November, at which time 53 cases had been diagnosed. That is the sort of time frame we are talking about. This is very, very rapid and is occurring far too quickly. Queensland was the first state to sound the alarm. Investigations in Queensland have progressed more than anywhere else in Australia. Accelerated silicosis can occur within 10 years of high-level exposure to silica dust. Accelerated silicosis is the type of silicosis that is most commonly being diagnosed in the most recent spate of cases. People are being diagnosed at a very young age and also, tragically, within the prime of their lives. We also know that there is no effective treatment and people often do not know they have it until it is too late.
The New South Wales Parliament recently launched an inquiry into the prevalence of silicosis. It is important to look at some of the evidence that has come out of that inquiry. Only last week, Dr Graeme Edwards from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians gave evidence to the inquiry. He illustrated the seriousness of this threat to workers’ lives. Dr Edwards said —
I am on the public record of stating that in my opinion, and it is the opinion of my colleagues, that this is worse than asbestos because of the age at which these people are suffering. With asbestos and asbestos-related diseases it is affecting people at the end of their working life and into their retirement; they have had an opportunity to contribute. My youngest patient is 23 years of age. I have patients who have to contemplate what are they going to say to their eight-year-old daughter at Christmas time because they are dying. This is a tragedy that should never have occurred and every case ... is evidence of system failure in the work health and safety spectrum—failure.
Evidence was also presented last week at the New South Wales inquiry by Dr Chris Colquhoun, who is the Chief Medical Officer of icare NSW. His evidence was that he believes there is no safe exposure limit to silica when cutting manufactured stone.
Members, I think we need to pay very close attention to the emerging evidence around this. We are talking about changing the exposure levels to safer levels. There has been a move to 0.05 milligrams, and obviously there is a desire to move to 0.02 milligrams, but emerging from the evidence is that there is no safe level that potentially can be contemplated. That is the situation that is starting to emerge.
As a result of the New South Wales parliamentary inquiry, my friend and colleague Hon David Shoebridge, a Greens member in New South Wales, only today called for a complete ban on manufactured stone products. He argues that we simply cannot afford to wait any longer. I will put it out there that this might be where we need to start going. This may be the inevitable outcome if we are to value workers’ lives and, indeed, the lives of people who will undertake home renovations in the future. I note that so far most efforts to stem this crisis have been directed at the stonecutting industry and its 6 000 workers across the country. Dr Edwards advocates for ensuring that high-risk industry subsectors are targeted so that the impacts of silicosis are not diluted and hidden by a broader reporting process.
I note also that eminent occupational hygienists have increasingly called for a widening of investigations to ensure that we look at building, demolition, tunnelling and quarrying industries in which workers are being exposed to elevated levels of silica dust. Either way, what is abundantly clear is that at the very least there is an urgent need for vigorous enforcement of dust-reduction regulations, particularly in the growing industry of engineered stone products, but also across the board. It is critical that we have a robust inspection regime. Without that data, there is no prospect of prosecuting workplaces that are doing the wrong thing. We need to ensure that we have both the expertise and the workforce within WorkSafe to prioritise this issue. I agree that it is clear that WorkSafe is significantly lifting its activity in this area, and not before time.
I note further that a federal inquiry was also initiated, but that is not due to report back until December next year. I maintain emphatically that this is too long to wait before we take action. Although the inquiry is necessary, there is already enough evidence to show that there is an unacceptable level of risk. It is unacceptable that we are looking once again into the face of a preventable occupational disease such as silicosis and that right now it is threatening the health and lives of Western Australians. Let us be very clear: this disease is 100 per cent preventable. We must ensure that all worksites are safe. I completely agree that people deserve to perform a good day’s work and to go home as healthy, and as alive, as they began the day. This is a huge crisis and we have to take urgent measures. I will not be surprised if in the very near future we will have to consider complete bans.
Comments and speeches from various members
Motion lapsed, pursuant to standing orders.