Is Safe Work up to the task on silicosis? Government MP casts doubt on the agency

Labor MP and medical doctor Michelle Ananda-Rajah has cast doubt on the ability of Safe Work Australia to investigate a ban on deadly kitchen benchtop slabs, saying the silicosis epidemic exploded under the watch of the national agency.

Ananda-Rajah, whose political career was launched over campaigning for the health of hospital workers during the pandemic, branded the six-month turnaround federal, state and territory ministers gave Safe Work to report back on a potential ban as “generous” given the dangerous effects of engineered stone were already known.

Labor MP and doctor Michelle Ananda-Rajah is sceptical of Safe Work Australia’s ability to advise on an engineered stone ban.Credit:Eddie Jim

The member for Higgins is one of three government MPs to speak out strongly against aspects of a national decision on high-silica products after an investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes that revealed workers exposed to silica dust were battling the debilitating symptoms of the lung disease.

The former national dust diseases taskforce in 2021 recommended a ban be considered if no improvements had been achieved in workplace safety by July 2024, but states and territories this week agreed to consider a ban now, pending the report by Safe Work.

“I would’ve preferred to see a report a lot sooner, maybe in the next quarter, because it’s not like Safe Work haven’t been aware of this problem,” Ananda-Rajah said.

“The big problem I have with Safe Work Australia leading this is this catastrophe has happened under the watch of Safe Work. So I have to question … as a parliamentarian, I need to be confident that they are the best people tasked with carrying this out.

“The only thing enforcement bodies are judged by is outcomes, and the outcomes speak for themselves … Are they up to the task of now reining this in?”

Last July Safe Work released a consultation paper on tackling the health risks of engineered stone, but didn’t list a ban as a potential option. The agency didn’t respond to questions.

A Curtin University study last April, commissioned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, estimated there were at that point about 584,000 Australian workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica in the workplace.

Ananda-Rajah – who was an infectious diseases and general physician before entering parliament – said if any state or territory ministers were hesitant about a ban, “I urge them to sit in a room and listen to the people who are suffering from this disease, and look them in the eye.”

“I think that will concentrate the minds of everyone to sort this problem out.”

Dr Graeme Edwards, a dust diseases taskforce member who also raised the alarm over the silica epidemic in 2018, said Tuesday’s agreement amounted to “a public statement to do what they should’ve been doing all along”.

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.

Labor senator Tony Sheldon, one of the government’s loudest voices on industrial relations, said an awareness campaign was “not a solution that can save lives now”.

Labor senator Tony Sheldon says six months is too long to wait for an agreement on a ban.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“Six months is far too long to wait. Six months only allows more time for people to be hit with death sentences,” Sheldon said. “Urgent action is required, not further delay on this critical matter of life and death.”

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.

Major engineered stone manufacturer Caesarstone this week joined competitor Cosentino in saying reducing the products’ silica content to 40 per cent or less could help combat silicosis, combined with tougher regulations, but Ananda-Rajah said she was sceptical of low-silica products.

“We don’t want to replace one problem with another,” she said.

Burke’s office has been contacted for comment.

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