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Tuesday, 13 June 2006
Page: 68

Senator POLLEY (4:41 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

Mr President, I rise to speak on the Community Affairs’ Committee’s inquiry into Workplace Exposure to Toxic Dust. The importance of a thorough inquiry into the impacts of exposure to Toxic Dust was recognised by the Senate, which referred several matters to the committee for inquiry back in June 2005.

The Community Affairs Committee has consequently undertaken a thorough and detailed inquiry, receiving numerous submissions in respect of what is becoming a very serious and common work related health problem.

We all know, due to many well publicised cases, of the effects of asbestos and past work practices have been a contributing factor to many cases of asbestosis. Asbestos was commonly used throughout Australia from the 1940s until its use, in all forms, was banned from December 31 2003—except in prescribed circumstances.

The fibres of asbestos cause asbestosis, lung cancer and asbestos-related pleural diseases. Unfortunately, we have not only seen cases of asbestosis due to the mining of the product. Many cases have been a result of the use of asbestos as a building product, or even from indirect contact with dust—such as that which may come from renovating a house containing asbestos. The Asbestos-related Claims (Management of Commonwealth Liabilities) Bill 2005 and the Asbestos-related Claims (Management of Commonwealth Liabilities) (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2005 Bills Digest tells us that estimates for Australia’s total liability for future asbestos claims start at around $6 billion.

The effects of asbestos are well documented and State, Territory and Federal Governments, have all put mechanisms in place to manage asbestos related compensation claims. With that in mind, the committee chose not to particularly address asbestos but instead review the issue of workplace exposure to other toxic dusts including silica dust, beryllium and timber dust, the effects of which are not so widely known.

The inquiry found that workers may come into contact with forms of toxic dust such as crystalline silica, wood dust and nanoparticles. Silica is a naturally occurring mineral in most rocks and soil, and occurs in several crystalline forms amorphous non-crystalline forms. Exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) occurs through cutting, chipping drilling or grinding substances containing crystalline silica, but it may also occur through the use of materials that contain RCS for abrasive blasting.

Workers may come into contact with RCS through a range of activities including: excavation, sandblasting, grinding of materials such as granite, concrete cutting and drilling, road building, glass making, bricklaying and demolition.

The number of workers who risk a potential exposure to RCS was reported by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission to be at nearly 294,000 in 2002. However, it was noted that not all workers across all industries have similar levels of risk to exposure—some may be at high risk, while others have a significantly lower risk of exposure.

Exposure to crystalline silica is known to cause a number of diseases, including Silicosis, but is also linked to others.

Silicosis has traditionally been known as a disease associated with mining and is caused by the inhalation of dust containing crystalline silica. However, there have been increasing numbers of cases of Silicosis occurring in workers in other trade-based industries as exposure over time to dust can be just as detrimental as working in a mining environment.

Silicosis is known to cause breathing difficulties, chest pain, respiratory failure and lead to death. The three main types of silicosis are: Chronic or Class Silicosis (which occurs after 15-20 years of moderate to low exposure); Accelerated or Subacute Silicosis (which can occur after 5-10 years of exposure to high levels of silica); and Acute Silicosis (which occurs after a few months, or as long as two years following exposure to extremely high concentrations of RCS.) Often the Acute form of the disease results in death, regardless of treatment.

The committee heard that there was a magnitude of evidence on the latency of chronic silicosis. Cement Concrete Aggregates Australia, or CCAA stated in a submission to the inquiry that chronic silicosis has a latency that may be up to seven years after cessation of exposure—even when there is little or no clinical evidence of the disease in the intervening period and there is no ongoing exposure during that time.

However, CCAA then went on to state that a delayed appearance of the disease or latency, is rare and that around 96 per cent of all cases of silicosis are diagnosable within a year of cessation of exposure, if not at the time of exposure.

CCAA also noted that silicosis does not have a long latency period at all, if compared to something like mesothelioma—which may occur up to 40 years after exposure has ceased or other occupational cancers.

However, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland stated that there is a general consensus among researchers that the latency period for most cases of the disease is in excess of twenty years from first exposure.

Of the submissions received by the committee as part of the inquiry, there were many from people living in communities located near quarries and smelters with concerns about their risk of developing dust-related diseases.

CCAA stated in their submission that there have been no known cases of silicosis arising from exposure to RCS in the community, either in Australia or overseas. Silicosis, they said, is seen as an industrial problem, not a community problem.

CCAA reported to the committee that there are procedures to monitor exposure around industrial sites and around perimeters, and controls are also in place around sites to prevent dusts from escaping and organisations can and are prosecuted for failing to meet those standards.

The committee also found that there is some dispute over the association of airway disease with crystalline silica. University of Tasmania Professor E Haydn Walters told the Committee in a submission that internationally there is now acceptance that non-organic dust can also be a cause of fixed airflow obstruction and chronic bronchitis. This, he said, may be either additive to cigarette smoking or be more evident in smokers.

When looking at the incidence of airway disease involving crystalline silica, the committee noted that its Regulation Impact Statement on the Proposed Amendment to the National Exposure Standard for Crystalline Silica in October 2004, the National Health and Safety Commission stated emphysema, the main cause of chronic obstructive lung disease, can be caused by inhalation of crystalline silica and that silica dust can worsen the damage done by smoking.

The National Health and Safety Commission’s Regulatory Impact Statement states that Occupational exposures to respirable crystalline silica can also have heart effects. In severe cases, it says, fibrosis sin the lungs can lead to prolonged increase in the blood pressure in the arteries and veins of the lungs, which is known as pulmonary hypertension. Exposure to silica has also been linked to the development of numerous disorders including autoimmune disorders such as scleroderma, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis and chronic renal disease.

Apart from crystalline silica, the committee also looked at several other forms of dusts which are known to cause severe health problems.

Beryllium cooper alloy or cooper-beryllium is used in numerous industries including mining, glass manufacturing, automotive manufacturing, smelters, foundries, ship manufacture, dental laboratories, aviation and nuclear power.

Exposure to high levels of beryllium dust results in acute beryllium disease or ABD. While workers generally recover from ABD, some will develop chronic beryllium disease, or CBD, which is incurable—although if it is caught early, its symptoms can be suppressed with steroids.

CBD can damage the lungs, liver and spleen and has a long latency. It can appear up to 40 years or more after the initial exposure. A submission received by Mr John Edwards, of Victoria, stated that he and other considered CBD to be far worse than asbestos-related lung diseases as, and I quote: “CBD can affect every major organ of the human body.”

The exposure to timber dust, alumina and textile dusts were also looked at by the committee. Exposure to timber dust is known to produce simple irritation but in some cases may also provoke rhinitis, asthma, bronchitis and pneumonitis. However, sino-nasal cancers associated with hardwood dust have also been reported in many countries including Australia.

Aluminosis is the occupational lung disease seen in workers exposed to fine aluminium powder, or dust, while Byssinosis is an occupational airway disease that occurs in textile workers due to the inhalation of certain textile dusts. A submission from the Dust Diseases Board of New South Wales informed the committee that, thankfully, this condition is now rare.

Due to the long latency periods involved in many of these diseases and ailments, there is a problem with the diagnoses of toxic dust-related health because some symptoms may not be seen for up to 40 years after exposure.

Many witnesses affirmed the need for further research to fully understand the extent of diseases caused by toxic dust, and the ACTU recommended that the Government fund research into improving medical tests for dust diseases, with a focus on early detection.

There was also mention of the need to ensure all workers who are exposed to toxic dust are adequately surveyed and regularly checked for signs of illness. The States and Territories already have hazardous substance regulations in place based on the national model regulations produced by the Commonwealth in 1994.

However, the committee noted that there are problems regarding the confusion of dust-related diseases with other lung conditions or lifestyle factors such as smoking. A recommendation from the Committee asks that the Australian Safety and Compensation Council, in conjunction with the Heads of Workplace Safety Authorities, consider mechanisms to improve health surveillance of employees, particularly those exposed to toxic dust.

A further problem uncovered by the inquiry is that particular problems of exposure to toxic dust are not well understood or recognised by medical practitioners and that not all workers with dust related diseases will be identified.

The Union Movement has been pivotal in uncovering problems associated with workplace health and has been at the forefront in the fight for compensation for asbestosis victims. Indeed a great deal of the exposure that has been brought to the problem has come directly from Union involvement in these cases.

To increase the level of awareness already brought about by Union involvement, the committee has thus recommended that an information campaign promoting the effects of toxic dust to the medical profession be undertaken, and that the need for improvements in testing regimes for lung disease, as well as the training of those conducting tests and equipment requirements, be examined.

The effect of toxic dust and its related illnesses has unfortunately only just been touched on with the cases of asbestosis we have seen in recent years. With the ban on the use of asbestos as a building material, it is hoped that eventually cases of the illness will dwindle. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other diseases caused by various forms of dust examined as part of the inquiry.

Overwhelmingly the most obvious factor challenging those working against the effect of toxic dust in the workplace is a lack of knowledge. Timber dust, for example, was seen by Dr John Bisby from CCAA as a greater issue than silicosis, because the risks associated with it are simply unknown.

Also of relevance to this issue is the incidence and increase of workplace induced asthma. AAP reported on June 6 that one in 10 people who develop asthma as an adult have their work to blame. Hairdressers, spray painters, bakers, dry cleaners and other occupations with exposure to chemicals are most at risk.

Again, the issue needs to be about education and awareness. People in these occupations need to be aware of exactly what conditions they are at risk of and what they can do to prevent or decrease their exposure to toxins.

As we all know, prevention is much easier than a cure.

Debate adjourned.