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Tuesday, 13 June 2006
Page: 67

Senator MOORE (4:41 PM) —I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report of the Community Affairs References Committee Workplace exposure to toxic dust, together with the Hansard record of the committee’s proceedings and documents received by the committee.

Leave granted.

Senator MOORE —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report tabled earlier today.

I seek leave to incorporate a short tabling statement and also a short speech from Senator Polley.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows—

The Committee’s inquiry into toxic dust arose out of the exposure of workers to crystalline silica in the sandblasting industry. One worker, Mr Richard White, sought compensation for lung disease resulting allegedly from exposure during employment as a sandblaster in the 1970s. The litigation was unsuccessful and Mr White then contacted others who knew or suspected that they had acquired lung or other disease through sandblasting. Eventually, Mr White compiled a list of over 900 names. It appeared that very few had received or sought compensation for their disability.

The Committee received 46 public submissions and 2 confidential submissions during the inquiry from a range of organisations, individuals and Commonwealth and State Government bodies. Public hearings were held in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

The evidence highlighted the harmful effects of toxic dust: workers may suffer silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer as a result of exposure to crystalline silica; damage to the lungs, liver and spleen from exposure to beryllium dust; while exposure to timber dust is associated with cancer of the nasal sinuses.

Identifying the extent of illness related to workplace exposure to toxic dust is difficult as the main source of data is workers’ compensation statistics which do not record work-related illness that is of less than five days duration and do not record unsuccessful claims.

Added to the limitations of the datasets is the impact of the long lag time for some dust related diseases to be diagnosed. This often means that disease is blamed on lifestyle factors such as smoking rather than workplace exposure to toxic dust. It is for this reason that witnesses emphasised the importance of regular health surveillance of employees, including lung function tests and X-rays.

While the Commonwealth and State and Territories have developed a regulatory system to ensure worker safety, witnesses stated that problems with the system mean that some workers were still being exposed to unacceptable levels of toxic dust. These problems include slow implementation of changes to the regulatory regime, poor enforcement of regulations, particularly in small industries, and lack of information on exposure to toxic dust being provided to workers. These issues, coupled with poor work practices, have resulted in many Australian workers suffering potentially harmful exposure to toxic dust.

Compensation issues for those affected by exposure to toxic dust are complex: the long latency of disease makes it difficult to link work exposure to disease; compensation systems vary in the States and Territories; various limitations exist to prevent access to compensation; and a number of models for financial support exist. The Committee has noted the compensation mechanism in place in New South Wales and has recommended that that State and Territory Governments move as soon as possible to set up nationally consistent identification, assessment and compensation mechanisms for persons affected by workplace related exposure to toxic dust and their families to at least the current New South Wales standard. The Committee has also recommended that statutes of limitation that restrict legal proceedings for claims for personal injuries resulting from exposure to toxic dust be removed.

While concern exists to ensure that workers who have already been exposed to toxic dust receive adequate medical assistance and compensation, the emerging field of nanotechnology presents new occupational health and safety challenges. Research already indicates that nanoparticles may have serious health outcomes and the significant gaps in knowledge about how nanoparticles act, their toxicity and how to measure and monitor nanoparticle exposure. The Committee has made a number of recommendations so that these issues are addressed and to ensure that adequate regulations are introduced to overcome occupational health and safety concerns surrounding nanoparticles.

Senator MOORE —I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.