Legislative Council: Thursday, December 01, 2022



Work Health and Safety (Crystalline Silica Dust) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 15 June 2022.)

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (16:22): I rise today to speak on behalf of the government in relation to the bill that is before us. This is a very important issue for the health and safety of the South Australian community. The final report of the National Dust Disease Taskforce in June 2021 concluded that the past decade had seen a re-emergence of respiratory diseases associated with exposure to respirable crystalline silica, driven by the popularity of engineered tabletop stone.

Earlier this year, researchers from Curtin University estimated that over 10,000 Australians will develop lung cancer and over 100,000 workers will be diagnosed with silicosis as a result of their exposure to silica dust at work. At this very moment, jurisdictions around Australia are grappling with how to respond to this issue. I understand that no other state or territory has yet implemented a complete ban on working with materials containing silica in the form proposed by this bill, but some jurisdictions are exploring licensing regimes for these industries.

Others are looking to amend their work health and safety regulations to prohibit the uncontrolled cutting, grinding or abrasive polishing of engineered stone, which produces silica dust. There are a range of policy options open to ensure the health and safety of South Australian workers in relation to these issues, and those options will require careful and deliberate consideration.

The government supports this bill being referred to the occupational safety, health and compensation committee for inquiry, and I look forward to, if that is the course that is taken, the committee undertaking that important work.

The Hon. C. BONAROS (16:23): I rise to speak on behalf of SA-Best on the Work Health and Safety (Crystalline Silica Dust) Amendment Bill 2022, which as we know seeks to amend the Work Health and Safety Act 2012 to ban any work exposing a person to crystalline silica dust. The dust is found in rocks, sand, granite and engineered products commonly known as reconstituted or composite stone, and the minute granules are about a hundred times smaller than sand, as I understand it.

The cutting, grinding, sanding and polishing of that stone in particular generates crystalline silica dust, which can be fatal when inhaled over a period of time. Exposure can cause silicosis or scarring of the lungs, which is serious and irreversible and tragically can be fatal. It can also cause latency diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, kidney disease or chronic bronchitis.

All this sounds terribly familiar and should sound terribly familiar to us when we consider how asbestos was treated previously in Australia and indeed throughout the world. There were the mammoth efforts of this parliament to introduce the dust diseases legislation some years ago, which I was involved with when I worked as a staff member here. I have to say, for the record, that is probably the reason I am standing here today, because it was one of the first campaigns I ever worked on that made me realise that, from very small grassroots campaigns and a lot of political pressure, this parliament has the ability to do extraordinary work that absolutely changes the course of families forever and a day.

So I do not downplay the concerns we have around silica dust by any stretch of the imagination. I recall the first instances of those cases being exposed and the questions I asked of the then Treasurer, Rob Lucas, in relation to what we were doing to address that issue. I understand that there was a lot being done at a commonwealth level and that we were seeing the flowthrough to the states, but it is certainly something we have kept a keen and close eye on.

Of course, again like asbestos, there is going to be the flipside to that argument in terms of what happens if we were to ban a product like this, because of its broad use and also the flow-on effects from that in terms of, for instance, stonemasons' work with granite and marble, construction workers, engineers, farmers, bricklayers, demolition workers, workers in glass manufacturing and businesses that employ workers in these fields. There are obviously going to be lots of concerns raised by those industries in relation to any measure around this

But the number one priority I think has to be the safety of workers, so for that reason I wholeheartedly welcome the Hon. Tammy Franks' proposal to refer this to an inquiry so that we are all on top of all the issues that exist, all the dangers that are presented and all the things we can be doing to ensure that every worker goes to work, has a safe day at work and comes home safely and does not, as in the case of asbestos, 10, 20, 30 or 50 years down the track find themselves with a terrible fatal and terminal diagnosis.

I know silica dust and asbestos are not the same thing, but I think there is a huge resemblance between the two, so I very much welcome and am supportive of referring this bill for inquiry so that we can all be better informed about where we are at when it comes to these products, where we are at in terms of worker safety around these products and what we need to do to ensure those workers are safe.

According to the Cancer Council, 587,000 Australian workers were exposed to silica dust in the workplace in 2011 alone. If a ban was implemented Australia-wide, that could obviously result in huge job losses and impacts on lots of those businesses, but again I suppose the question is: where do we draw the line between those processes and worker safety? It is for that reason that I think this bill is very important and the inquiry process that the member has proposed is equally as important.

In October 2021, Safe Work Australia released a code of practice titled 'Managing the risks of respirable crystalline silica from engineered stone in the workplace'. It sets standards for ventilation, air monitoring, vacuum extraction, use of PPE and training—again, all sounding very familiar—but there are lots and lots of questions that remain unanswered and there are lots of question marks, I think, that exist over the current standards that apply. These are issues that we may not be able to address today because we simply do not know the long-term effects of some of them.

I think this is a matter that absolutely warrants a lot of scrutiny and the further attention of this parliament. We are fully supportive of the referral to the Parliamentary Committee on Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation for inquiry and report, and look forward to considering the outcomes of that review in due course.

The Hon. H.M. GIROLAMO (16:30): I indicate that I will be the lead speaker in the upper house for the opposition. I note the motion on the Notice Paper and indicate that the opposition will support the referral of this matter to the Parliamentary Committee on Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation for an inquiry and to be able to explore this important area further.

As a member of this committee, I look forward to further examining the bill in due course. It is important to be able to consider all elements, most importantly the work health and safety and also from a practicality point of view, given that this material is used in a variety of different areas. At this stage, we look forward to working with the Hon. Tammy Franks on this committee and working through this bill, and thank her for highlighting this important area.

The Hon. S.L. GAME (16:31): I rise today to add my voice to call for legislative needs relating to crystalline silica dust to be referred to the Parliamentary Committee on Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation. It is appropriate that this committee be the place to inquire and report on the associated issue the honourable member has raised. The health and safety of our community comes first, and a committee is an appropriate place to investigate pathways forward.

Forty-five per cent of the current Australian benchtop market consists of engineered or artificial stone. Many trades and suppliers stock both Australian-made and imported engineered stone products. A 2020-21 audit by SafeWork SA identified a positive increase in compliance with safety measures related to silica dust exposure after a 2019 awareness campaign. Most employers want to do the right thing and they want their workers to be safe. I believe a committee would help find constructive ways forward for industry and trades.

Breathe Freely Australia recommends that when exposures are not controlled to below 50 per cent of the Safe Work Australia Exposure Standard levels for respirable crystalline silica, health monitoring must take place. I absolutely agree with the previous sentiments in this chamber that we must proceed with caution. The litany of ailments exposure to fine crystalline dust can cause is staggering: silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and kidney disease. I agree with the need for a thorough review of compensation measures for those workers and families affected by crystalline silica dust.

Every Australian worker deserves the right to be safe in their workplace. Every worker deserves to know that laws protect them from preventable harm and assist them when things go wrong. A committee with ample expert witnesses and consultants will be the best place to find a safe way forward, if there is one. The Hon. Ms Franks has stated, 'We have to try something else. We have to act.' I agree and believe we should not end the conversation today but refer to the Parliamentary Committee on Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation as recommended.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:33): I thank those members who have made a contribution: the Hon. Kyam Maher, the Hon. Connie Bonaros, the Hon. Heidi Girolamo and the Hon. Sarah Game. I note that that is Labor, Liberal, One Nation and Greens all agreeing that we need to take a closer look at this issue, and this issue is around manufactured—

The Hon. C. Bonaros: And SA-Best.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS: And SA-Best. Sorry, I thought I said SA-Best. I am sorry. All parties represented in this council, in this chamber, are in agreement and I thank them all for their commitment to taking this issue seriously.

Manufactured stone was actually only first used in Australia in 2001, so this century. It is an imported building product made from silica aggregate and resin, and is most often used in those shiny kitchen benchtops and commercial and retail finishes. I note that evidence given to a New South Wales parliamentary inquiry heard from Dr Chris Colquhoun, the Chief Medical Officer of iCare, and he is quoted as saying 'any time you are cutting manufactured stone you have to make the assumption that if you breathe the stuff in you are going to die'.

In 2021, the report by the National Dust Disease Taskforce found that one in four workers who had been exposed had been diagnosed with silicosis. That is in less than 20 years. What happens in the next 20 years? I have to assume that, unfortunately, those numbers and that probability will rise.

It took 70 years for Australia to ban all forms of asbestos. We need to learn from that disaster and act urgently to ban artificial stone. Silicosis is already killing workers, young workers with young families, affecting people who should have had their entire lives ahead of them. I would hope that all legislators, regardless of political party, will put the lives of those workers and their families above the need for shiny kitchen benchtops and that we will act urgently to address this issue and find a solution that effectively bans this new industry—it is not an ongoing, historic industry; it is, in fact, quite a new, emerging industry—and does so swiftly to literally save lives.

I have moved contingently that this bill be withdrawn and referred to the Parliamentary Committee on Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation for inquiry and report, and I note that as I move that it be read a second time.

Bill read a second time.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:36): I move:

That the bill be withdrawn, and referred to the Parliamentary Committee on Occupational Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation for inquiry and report.

Motion carried; bill withdrawn.