Respiratory disease registry seeks to combat silicosis

Silica ban under consideration

A national registry will be set up to detect and combat deadly workplace respiratory diseases as the federal government seeks to tackle the prevalence of silicosis.

If passed, the law will require mandatory reporting of the disease that affected nearly one-in-four engineered stone workers in the industry prior to 2018.

But the peak union representing workers wants a ban on engineered stone to eradicate disease.

Products with high silica levels – commonly used in kitchen and bathroom benches – have been linked to the incurable lung disease silicosis and cancer.

Assistant Health Minister Ged Kearney said every case of silicosis was unacceptable.

Introducing the proposal to parliament, she told the story of Joanna McNeill, a 34-year-old mother of two who worked in administration at a quarry run by a large multinational company.

During a fit-for-work test after returning from maternity leave, Joanna was diagnosed with silicosis.

“She’s not who many people would first picture when they think of a worker diagnosed with silicosis,” Ms Kearney said.

“She’s a young woman and she worked largely in a reception role at the front office of the quarry.

“[Ms McNeill] should never have been diagnosed with this disease.”

The proposed National Occupational Respiratory Disease Registry will capture information on respiratory disease believed to have been caused by or exacerbated in the workplace.

Respiratory, sleep, occupational and environmental medicine specialists will be required to notify the registry of every diagnosis of occupationally caused silicosis.

They may also notify the registry of other occupational respiratory diseases, with the patient’s consent.

Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Liam O’Brien said the registry would assist with the early identification and monitoring of people diagnosed with respiratory illnesses. But further reforms were critical.

“We need a ban on engineered stone … [it] is a fashion product that is killing those who work with it,” he said.

“More than 600,000 workers are exposed to deadly silica dust at work in industries including mining, quarrying construction, and manufacturing.

“This deadly and incurable disease is entirely preventable.”

The registry was a recommendation of the National Dust Disease Task Force, which first met in August 2019 in response to increasing silicosis diagnoses among Australian workers.

Ms Kearney said it was an important step forward to support early detection of new cases and identify workplaces and industries requiring greater scrutiny.

The government has committed $2.4 million for the operation of the registry through to 2025/26.


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