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Coalition announces taskforce, registry to address urgent concerns on silicosis

The Coalition on Tuesday pledged to invest $5 million to establish a National Dust Diseases Taskforce to develop a national approach for the prevention, early identification, control and management of dust diseases in Australia if it wins the May 18 election.

In a statement, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Industry, Science and Technology Minister Karen Andrews said the funding will also establish a National Dust Diseases Register and  commission new research to support understanding, prevention and treatment of preventable occupational lung diseases.

The announcement followed a call earlier today from leading medical and health groups for urgent action to “address the public health crisis facing the artificial stone benchtop industry”.

They said more than 100 stonemasons in Queensland alone have been diagnosed in the past six months with accelerated silicosis, a preventable lung disease occurring in workers as a result of exposure to silica dust.

In March, 36-year-old Gold Coast stonemason Anthony White lost his life to the condition, escalating growing concerns.

In their statement urging action today, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ), Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists, Australian New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM), Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (AFOEM) and the Lung Foundation said silicosis “represents the biggest lung disease crisis since asbestosis”.

Silicosis is caused by inhalation of very fine silica dust, they said. Unlike natural stone such as granite, which comprise approximately 30 per cent silica, artificial stone materials typically contain over 90 per cent silica, leading to an accelerated form of silicosis.

Taskforce would start work in July 2019

Hunt and Andrews said members of the National Dust Diseases Taskforce would be drawn from the medical community, industry, researchers and government, and be chaired by an eminent medical expert.

The objectives of the Taskforce, which would commence work in July 2019 and provide a final report by 31 December 2020, would be to identify ways to:

  • reduce the incidence and severity of dust diseases
  • ensure availability of effective treatment
  • reduce exposure through improved prevention, awareness and capacity building
  • eliminate hazards through better machinery and workplace design
  • ensure appropriate control of potentially hazardous materials
  • achieve better work health and safety outcomes through improved regulation and compliance
  • review the latest research into dust diseases and identify research gaps.

The Taskforce would report to the COAG Health Council, under the direction of the Health Minister.

High time for action

In a later statement, the health groups welcomed the Coalition’s announcement and said they looked forward to Labor’s response.

Croakey has approached the Labor Party for its position but has not yet had a response.

The groups said the funding pledged by the Coalition would ensure that affected stonemasons are identified early and receive the best possible treatment, no matter where they live, and that all states and territories develop a consistent response to this crisis.

“We have been calling on the major parties to commit to urgently establishing a Commonwealth-sponsored Dust Disease Taskforce, with the responsibility of leading and coordinating a national response to the epidemic,” they said.

TSANZ spokesperson Dr Ryan Hoy had earlier said it was “extremely disappointing that six months since this issue came to national attention and was considered by COAG Health Council, we are still waiting for national leadership and urgent action to mitigate the severity and impact of the disease in the at-risk population.”

“Early identification, even before symptoms have developed, and avoidance of further exposure to silica dust are absolutely crucial.”

“While some jurisdictions are putting measures in place, what we really require is national leadership on the issue and a coordinated collaborative response to avoid unnecessary duplication and inconsistencies between jurisdictions.

“If a national coordinated response to this pressing health issue is not urgently implemented, many more lives will be lost to this preventable disease,” said Dr Hoy.

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