THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: There’s been a big conversation all around Australia that’s been growing for some time about the dangers of silica in the workplace and what that means for silicosis and other lung diseases. It’s for that reason that I asked all State and Territory Ministers to meet together today to work through: how can we move together to provide that simplest of protections to make sure that when somebody goes to work, they’re not contracting a terminal illness simply by attending their job?
Silicosis is not only relevant to kitchen benchtops. A huge percentage of the earth’s crust is silica and some people will say, “Oh, well, silica is a natural product. It’s naturally occurring.” So is asbestos. There are products that when they’re in high levels of concentration create unacceptable levels of risk. There has been an understandable focus, therefore, on kitchen benchtops even though that’s not the whole story in respect to risk of silica.
Kitchen benchtops can be in the order of 97, 98 per cent silica, and while there are methods that have been used for not dry-cutting – making sure whenever it’s cut, that it’s wet – experience has been that all too often, no matter what rules are in place, we still end up with situations of dry-cutting, we still end with situations of unacceptable risk.
Silicosis is a disease that hits people regardless of age. Here in this building, when I was in Opposition, a couple of years ago, I met a young woman by the name of Joanna. She was 35 at the time. She told me that her greatest fear was not seeing her daughters grow into adulthood. She explained that for her she was in a workplace – not a kitchen benchtop workplace, but she was in a workplace with high levels of silica dust. She was working as an administrative assistant and now has a terminal illness.
So, I brought all State Ministers together because this has been an issue with the growing concern where work health and safety laws and the way our system works across all jurisdictions, it doesn’t move quickly. The official time to consider whether or not we should have tougher rules wasn’t meant to commence until June of next year. Even when we got to that date, there would still be longer periods of time while you work out all the details and then legislate. So, we made the decision that we’d bring the meeting forward today.
I’m pleased to say we’ve ended up with a unanimous decision across every State, Territory and Commonwealth. We have now tasked Safe Work Australia to do the work to scope out what regulations are required for all workplaces where you deal with silica dust and to also scope out specifically with respect to our engineered stone and engineered-stone benchtops, to do the work starting now on what a ban would look like.
Now, people would be aware that not all engineered stone is at 97, 98 per cent silica. There are some forms that are at much lower levels and percentages and, therefore, present a much lower risk. For some the risk is actually no different to natural stone. So, what we’ve asked Safe Work Australia to do is scope out if there were to be a prohibition, where that line would be drawn, and then to also scope out how you can have a nationally consistent licensing system for whatever remains as being viewed as safe to be on the market, but certainly making sure that it would have serious work health and safety issues. That licensing system though would also have to apply to legacy products.
We need to remember now even for the most dangerous of these products, they will now be in kitchens where, as long as they’re left alone, they will be quite safe. But what happens when that homeowner decides it’s time to renovate? What happens if there’s a demolition of the house? Effectively, the experience we went through with asbestos is now going to be with us as we work through the legacy items on these engineered-stone benchtops. So, no one should be worried in terms of what they currently have in their home and think suddenly that’s a dangerous item to have, but the moment it’s adjusted, the moment it’s moved, the risk is real and we do not currently have the rules in place to make sure that it’s safe.
We initially went to the meeting on the basis that we’d try to meet again in six months’ time. We ended up resolving that if the report is ready earlier than that, we will meet earlier than that. We will scope out the different things that can be done at each level of Government. But in order for there to be a ban, this work from Safe Work Australia needs to be done. They’ve been tasked to do it today, andI have to say for an issue where, you know, work health and safety, it does move slowly but when it moves unanimously, when every jurisdiction regardless of its political colour says, “No, we are now pressing go on working through what a ban would look like”, then I think today is a day where we have moved forward in trying to make sure that you don’t get sick simply because you had a job and you turned up for work.
JOURNALIST: The CFMEU has said that they’re going to ban engineered stone from July 2024 no matter what. That doesn’t leave a lot of lead in time for this to be phased in. Is this a done deal and, you know, put that in the diary for July 2024?
BURKE: Unions and organisations will make whatever decisions they make within the law. It will also be the case that some suppliers will start to look now at how they can get lower levels of silica in the benchtops or how they can look for other alternatives in people’s kitchens and bathrooms. So, a whole lot of adjustments will happen straightaway. But what we’ve done today is the job of Governments. Look, of course, I wish that Government had started this process sooner. Of course, I wish that when the now Prime Minister and myself were making speeches in Parliament about this when we were in Opposition, of course, we wish this process had begun then. The decision we made today, though, was we weren’t going to wait for the official starting date of getting things moving to next year. As I said, Australia took 70 years from the time we were warned about asbestos to the time that we got to the point of a ban. We’re not going to make that mistake again.
JOURNALIST: Minister, can I just clarify, is today’s agreement to ban engineered stone or an agreement to consider a ban?
BURKE: No, that is right. Today we have asked Safe Work Australia to scope out what a ban would look like. We would then consider at a future meeting and that future meeting will happen as soon as we get the report. That report might take quite some months. But it would be presumptuous of me to say that every jurisdiction has locked in on a ban before we’ve even done a scoping study to see what that might look like. The decision today, we have tasked them to consider and work through what a ban might look like. They’ll bring that report back. Jurisdictions will then meet again. I hope we get the same level of unanimity that we had today.
JOURNALIST: Do you anticipate an agreement on that?
BURKE: Well, everything that we could do today – everything we could do today – we did, and we did unanimously. The work now will be done in consultation with industry and a whole lot of stakeholders by Safe Work Australia, and as soon as that work is ready to go, we will be back again meeting as Ministers to consider the report.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you mentioned it’s not just engineered-stone benchtops. It’s also other industries, things like tunnels, things like clothes. What kind of restrictions would you like to see in those other sectors to protect workers?
BURKE: Effectively, if you look at the architecture of the work we’ve given Safe Work Australia today, if you’re in those other sectors, we’ve asked Safe Work Australia to come back with what sort of regulation would be required for workers to be safer than they’ve been, and in terms of benchtops, we’ve asked them to look specifically at what a prohibition might look like, but also where you would draw the line on what products you’d prohibit and what you wouldn’t and what regulation and licensing – licensing in particular that was nationally consistent – might look like for what remains and also for legacy items where we will have the same problem that we’ve had with asbestos every time they need to be moved.
JOURNALIST: So, [indistinct] for those other sectors on what those restrictions would look like –
BURKE: Once again, we did everything we could do today in terms of tasking Safe Work Australia.
JOURNALIST: Minister, you’ve likened silica dust to asbestos. Obviously, there’s a significant emotion attached to that. What is your message to households who have had engineered stone recently installed or are looking at purchasing it, might see this on the news tonight and be quite concerned? What is your message to consumers about this news?
BURKE: Look, my message is: do a search on the different options that are available. Do a search on all the different options that are available before you make a decision and know that we’re working through this. And this is a challenge, for example: there will be many factories you can go to where they will no longer say they’re doing dry-cutting and they’ve eliminated the risk of dust. There will be a number of factories, for example, which will say they no longer do dry-cutting and they’ve eliminated the risk of dust. There’s a couple of things that need to be borne in mind there. One is we have increasing views from the medical profession that even in those circumstances you can’t guarantee a safe workplace. So, if you look at what’s come from the Cancer Council now, the Royal College of Physicians, the Lung Foundation, they’ve all come forward wanting us to consider the prohibition in the way that we have today.
The other issue, though, to remember is that often even if the factory is fine, once it gets to the home, it often doesn’t fit exactly, and you find a different set of workers in the home often who are dry-cutting even if it had all been done correctly the first time.
JOURNALIST: Thank you, Minister. So, you said today that the States and Territories have unanimously agreed to have Safe Work conduct this scoping study. What would happen if there isn’t a unanimous agreement on a path forward, say, on a possible ban? Is the Commonwealth considering going over the top of the States and Territories to make sure there’s uniform regulations and restrictions? And just second, you said earlier that you think workers deserve the simplest protection which is to come home from work safe. Given what we’ve heard, isn’t the simplest protection to phase out engineered stone right now?
BURKE: I missed the end of that, sorry.
JOURNALIST: Wouldn’t the best possible protection be to phase out engineered stone right now?
BURKE: The challenge on the second part of that is: how do you define engineered stone? You’ve got a range of percentages and, as I say, some of which at the lower end are no different to if you’re using natural stone. So, to say all engineered stone would bring in a whole lot of products that are not necessarily part of the current challenges that we have.
In terms of how a decision is made, when the report comes back and we meet again, the way it works is you need two-thirds – so that’s six out of nine jurisdictions – to be able to make a decision. A lot of ministerial councils work on a majority, some work unanimously. This one works two thirds. So, that’s the way to deal with it. I have always worked on the basis as a Minister, both in this Government and when I’ve previously been a Minister, that the starting point is always where can we bring jurisdictions with you and that’s always how I approach things from the start.
JOURNALIST: Minister, the National Dust Disease Taskforce report recommended that the process to look into a ban start in July 2024 if measures to increase worker safety hadn’t improved, or if outcomes hadn’t improved. Could you comfortably say now that those two things are correct – that the preventative measures aren’t working and the workers are no safer than they were when that report was handed down?
BURKE: I think one of the big changes is the different nature of the medical advice that’s starting to come in now. I referred to a few of the organisations. That is quite a different emphasis than what we had previously. And when you get that sort of information where some are saying, “Look, even if you have wet-cutting taking place, you still have all these other problems”, both how it gets adjusted, what happens in the years to come if someone wants to renovate or demolish the house, then you add all that up, we ended up saying, “No, no, no, we need to scope this out now.”
JOURNALIST: Minister, obviously with asbestos following bans were many compensation scheme for workers who were affected, who had been exposed to asbestos on the job. So, if there was a full ban of silica with all the potential and all the benchtops associated there, would you envisage that there would be similar sort of compensatory schemes for workers affected? Would that be a repercussion down the line?
BURKE: I think one of the things that’s really important is that I respect the nature of how this decision-making process works with the States. And I’ve been making sure I’m respectful and don’t get ahead of the decisions that we’re up to. The decision that you referred to there is not one that we’re up to at the moment because it presumes a ban is already in place and that’s a decision for a future meeting.
JOURNALIST: Minister, if I can have one more. Just in regards to tougher regulations, obviously, it might be some time before a decision across the board and whether or not to ban it, so would you like to see regulations or a licensing scheme come into place in the interim in order to create a stronger way of scaffolding and policing this?
BURKE: It’s the same process, effectively. We still need Safe Work Australia to come back. So, Safe Work Australia are coming back with the total regulation principles that will affect a whole range of industries, but the work that we have asked them to do on manufactured stone is exactly as I’ve described. So, I think if I were to also ask them to come up with something different as an interim measure, it would just slow the whole process down and that’s the last thing I want to do. Thank you.