Australian unions ramp up push for safer silica standard

An official review of Australia’s respirable silica exposure standard is an opportunity to save lives – but the federal proposals are not protective enough and are being unacceptably delayed, the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) has said.

The union body warned that Safe Work Australia’s decision to take three years to halve the current respirable crystalline silica exposure standard to 0.05mg/m3  “does nothing to stem the tsunami of silicosis currently sweeping Australian workplaces.”

VTHC added: “This is a decision that flies in the face of recommendations from the Cancer Council, occupational health and safety experts in Australian Unions and international scientific research that called for an exposure standard of 0.02mg/m3.”

The state union body has vowed to campaign for the state government to introduce a tighter standard of 0.02 mg/m3, “making the state a world-leader on safety standards in this area.” Exposure to airborne silica is linked to diseases including silicosis, a potentially fatal lung scarring disease, autoimmune diseases and cancer.

In 2011 almost 600,000 Australians were exposed to silica dust whilst working; VTHC said it is estimated that 5,758 of them will develop lung cancer over the course of their life. The Victorian state government is supporting a move to the tighter 0.02 mg/m3 standard.

The move has the backing of unions, lawyers and medical experts in Victoria. Dr Paul Sutton, VTHC’s lead occupational health and safety organiser, commented: “This is a black day for stonemasons and all workers around the country exposed to silica dust. Safe Work Australia’s decision ignores international scientific evidence and Cancer Council recommendations. The three-year implementation is particularly galling because workers are being exposed to deadly, toxic silica dust today.”

He added: “The Victorian Trades Hall Council will not give up the fight for a safe silica standard here in Victoria.”

The VTHC call for a tighter 0.02 mg/m3 standard has been echoed by unions in Western Australia. Unions WA assistant secretary Owen Whittle said: “Unions are emphatic that this new standard must be adopted and that work and safety agencies monitor compliance as well as provision of all necessary safe practices such as wet cutting to reduce airborne silica dust, good ventilation in areas where working, wearing of respiration protective equipment, among other practices.”

Unions in the UK have been highly critical of the Health and Safety Executive for defending the current 0.1mg/m3 occupational exposure limit, five times the level proposed in Victoria and twice the level current in force in the USA.

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