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Labor backs AWU campaign to combat silicosis in the workplace

April 1, 2021

The Australian Workers’ Union says the Australian Labor Party’s 2021 National Conference commitment to battle the silicosis epidemic is a chance to help workers struck down with what has been dubbed the new asbestosis.

The AWU has spearheaded a long campaign on behalf of those suffering the disease, and to prevent it happening in the first place.

Each year approximately 230 Australian workers are diagnosed with lung cancer and 350 with silicosis.

Acting AWU National Secretary Misha Zelinsky said the Labor Party had shown leadership while the Morrison Government refused to act.

“Silica dust kills and we have been fighting for tougher national regulations with minimum benchmarks that protect all workers for years,” Mr Zelinsky said.

“The exposure to silica dust can be minimised at work but our current laws are a disgrace and workers’ lives are being put at unnecessary risk.

“I applaud the Labor Party for committing to action to protect Australian workers and to help those whose lives have been irreversibly changed by this cruel and preventable disease.”

At its conference, the ALP announced it would form a national response to address silicosis and other occupational lung diseases, including:

  • Nationally consistent regulation outlining minimum safety benchmarks across all industries where workers are exposed to silica dust.
  • Comprehensive health monitoring program during and after employment to assist in identifying the onset of any dust-related disease.
  • A dust register for all diagnosed cases of occupational lung disease.
  • Financial and psychological support for workers with silicosis and their families.

Each year 600,000 Australian workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica dust. When inhaled it can cause a variety of lung diseases including silicosis. It can also cause kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Australia’s work health and safety laws are inconsistent from state to state, and there are no national health monitoring programs to detect a dust disease before it becomes terminal.

Worst of all, workers who have silicosis and other dust diseases don’t get industry funded compensation or help to return to work.

“Silica is a natural mineral that is found in sand, stone, rock, granite and concrete,” AWU NSW Secretary Tony Callinan said in a speech to the ALP conference.

“When these materials are worked on in mines, quarries, tunnels, road construction and during cement and concrete manufacturing, small silica dust particles that cannot be seen by the naked eye are released into the air, and when inhaled cause irreversible damage to the lungs.

“Our safety standards and their enforcement in Australia are so shameful that even workers in the USA and Mexico have better protection from silica dust, than workers right here in Australia.”

AWU member Joanna McNeill, a 34-year-old mother of two young daughters from Victoria, contracted silicosis at a Boral quarry, where she worked in administration.

She now lives with uncertainty and a death sentence.  Her worst fear is that she will not be alive to see her young daughters grow into adults.

“We cannot allow exposure to silica to continue,” Ms McNeill said.

“We must provide legislation that will minimise silica dust exposure, provide better protection for workers, and also provide financial support for workers who are currently living with a dust disease.”

Support our campaign and sign the petition to protect workers from silicosis and provide fair compensation to victims and their families.

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