HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [6.21 pm]: I rise to speak about the incredibly concerning rise in the number of cases of silicosis occurring across Australia as a result of occupational exposure to silica. I particularly want to acknowledge the important work that UnionsWA and the union movement generally have been doing in trying to bring attention to what I think will be quite a serious crisis. We know that people who work in industries exposed to silica dust are currently at unacceptable risk of developing silicosis unless urgent action is taken. It appears that the risk of silicosis has risen with industries’ increasing use of artificial stone, which is typically 90 per cent silica, which is much higher than naturally occurring granite or marble.
The recurrence of silicosis occurring as a result of exposure at work was brought to light in Queensland last year. It is something that we need to pay very close attention to. In late 2018, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland conducted an audit of the stonecutting industry in Queensland. As a result of this audit, 552 compliance notices were issued across 138 stonecutting premises that were found not to be implementing measures to prevent the development of the disease amongst workers. The Queensland government has put in place a screening program. So far, 799 workers have been screened, of whom 98 have silicosis. According to the Cancer Council, 587 000 workers alone were exposed to silica dust in 2011, and about 5 758 of these people are estimated to develop lung cancer in the future as a direct result of this exposure.
I think the number of people affected to date is staggering and yet the full extent of those who will have contracted severe, chronic and often terminal lung conditions is still not yet known. WorkSafe WA has subsequently initiated an inspection program here in WA, and it remains underway. However, of deep concern is the recent news that WorkSafe has now confirmed five cases of silicosis in WA over the past year, most from the stone benchtop industry and one from the mining sector. Members, my understanding is that one of those people is only 25 years old, and this is deeply distressing. Given what is unfolding in Queensland, there is every reason to believe that these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. It is anticipated that one of the reasons Queensland has experienced such a huge increase in the immediate number is the sheer number of apartments being built, hence a lot of these benchtops have been mass produced.
WorkSafe’s figures also show that it has already issued a total of 216 improvement notices as a result of its recently initiated inspection program. We are hearing of many instances of young people unable to work for the rest of their lives because of the ongoing effects of occupational exposure. In 2017, the Medical Journal of Australia published an article on silicosis about new outbreaks. That article suggested that in almost all reported cases, there was little adherence to even basic protection measures such as the provision of appropriate ventilation systems and use of protective equipment. There is, therefore, clearly a need for vigorous enforcement of dust reduction regulations, particularly in the growing industry of engineered stone products. It will be absolutely vital that we have a robust inspection regime. Without this data, there will be no prospect of prosecuting workplaces that are doing the wrong thing. We need to ensure within WorkSafe itself that we have both the expertise and the workforce to ensure that it is prioritising this issue.
I note that a federal inquiry has been initiated but is not due to report back until December next year. This will be too long to wait before taking action. Of course, I accept that the inquiry is absolutely necessary, but there is already enough evidence to show that there is an unacceptable level of risk. I asked the Minister for Industrial Relations yesterday whether he supported calls to lower the standard for workplace exposure, which has been called for as a matter of urgency to address this issue. I was very pleased to hear that he is calling for a reduction of the national exposure standard to 0.02 milligrams per cubic metre. That is really welcome. However, he indicated there is not yet agreement across the states. I thank the minister for taking this issue seriously and encourage him, as a matter of absolute urgency, to ensure that he keeps this very much at the forefront of his interstate colleagues’ minds because I think we have an emerging disaster on our hands. It is completely unacceptable that a preventable occupational disease such as silicosis is now threatening the health of Western Australians. We need to be clear: this is a disease that is 100 per cent preventable, but only if we have safe workplaces and appropriate regulations. We therefore need to deal with this issue now; we do not need another asbestosis crisis on our hands.