State and federal workplace ministers have been accused of abdicating their responsibilities after deferring a decision on banning the use of deadly engineered stone to a meeting some time within the next six months in a stance criticised as too slow by a government backbencher and a doctor from the dust diseases taskforce.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke announced on Tuesday that a meeting of his state and territory counterparts had agreed to consider prohibiting the product behind workers contracting silicosis, giving Safe Work Australia up to half a year to report on what a ban would look like.
He announced the Commonwealth would explore blocking the importation of engineered stone but offered no timeline on that decision.
“I wish governments had started this process sooner,” he said, qualifying that if the report was ready earlier, then all ministers would reconvene earlier. “Everything we could do today, we did.”
But Dr Graeme Edwards, a former national dust diseases taskforce member who also raised the alarm over the silica epidemic in 2018, said the agreement amounted to “a public statement to do what they should’ve been doing all along”.
“Basically, it’s no change,” Edwards said. “It’s basically the ministers abdicating responsibility for their decision-making.”
Labor MP Dr Mike Freelander, who represents the south-west Sydney seat of Macarthur, said a decision for Safe Work to report back within six months was too slow after he had called for an immediate ban on the product.
“I had hoped for an interim ban until safety could be assessed,” Freelander said.
While a ban will only be considered, the ministers backed a national awareness campaign, stronger regulations that include training requirements, a requirement to conduct air monitoring and considering a national licensing scheme for products not subject to a ban.
Burke said the ministers had asked Safe Work to investigate what types of engineered stone should be prohibited, following calls from one manufacturer to ban products with more than 40 per cent crystalline silica.
“It would be presumptuous of me to say that every jurisdiction has locked in on a ban before we even had a scoping study to see what that might look like,” Burke said.
Burke had earlier said he was not willing to wait until a previously issued deadline of July 2024 to begin discussing banning high-silica content stone products, which is behind a spike in workers suffering lung disease.
Queensland Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace, who was the first state minister to call for a ban on engineered stone, said, “I think we can wait a few more months so we can get this right”.
Victorian WorkSafe Minister Danny Pearson for the first time backed a national ban “for the simple reason that no one should be exposed to fatal risks when they clock on each morning”, but supported the collective decision to wait for the report.
The commitment followed a joint investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and that revealed workers exposed to silica dust were battling the debilitating symptoms of silicosis while state-based regulators failed to effectively police workplaces.
While ACTU secretary Sally McManus last week called for an immediate ban, the council’s assistant secretary Liam O’Brien backed the collective decision of the ministers as a significant step forward in protecting workers from exposure to silica dust.
“It furthers our determination to ensure the changes announced today are implemented quickly and regulated properly,” O’Brien said.
Master Builders Association head Denita Wawn urged governments to consult extensively with industry “to ensure the impacts arising from any future decisions are well known and understood”.
“Any blanket ban that is not risk-proportionate would send the wrong message to businesses that are innovating and investing to continuously improve products and processes to minimise risk,” she said. A Curtin University study, commissioned by the ACTU, estimates there are more than 275,000 workers, including miners, contractors, construction workers, stone masons and tunnellers exposed to high levels of crystalline silica – which is carcinogenic.
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