07 August 2023

There are more than 3,000 construction businesses and more than 560 manufacturing businesses in my electorate of Macquarie, as well as a number of sandstone quarries, and so it's for the thousands of construction, manufacturing and quarry workers in and around my electorate that I speak in support of the National Occupational Respiratory Disease Registry Bill today.

It's now well documented how great the risk of engineered-stone manufacturing is and the horrifying impact that it can have on people exposed to its dust. We've already seen people die from silicosis in this country, people who were otherwise young and healthy. Rates of silicosis and other occupational respiratory diseases are unacceptably high here. These are entirely preventable illnesses and, all too often, entirely preventable deaths. I want every family in Macquarie to know that when they wave goodbye to a loved one as they go off to work in the morning, no matter what the worksite is or whether it's their mum, dad, son, daughter or partner, they're going to see them come home and they're not going to be exposed to deadly silica dust.

It's worth comparing the actions that were taken by governments when asbestos was first identified to what we're doing today in these bills. The safety risks of asbestos were first identified in 1898, but it wasn't until the 1970s that meaningful action began. Now, as a parliament, we are not making that same mistake again. We are looking at a range of things that can be done.

First, I want to make clear exactly what silicosis is. It is preventable, but it typically has scarring on the lungs called 'pulmonary fibrosis'. Over time, breathing in those tiny silica dust particles triggers an inflammatory response that leads to small nodules growing on the lungs. They can cluster together, causing the lungs to be stiffer and reducing the transfer of oxygen into the blood. In the early stages of the disease, people can have a cough and can be breathless or tired, but they're well, generally. The more the disease spreads in the lungs, the harder it will be for someone to breathe. There is no cure. A lung transplant may be the only option, although much work is being done on new treatments.

The incidence of silicosis has really come to light in recent years. When we talk about this dust getting into people's lungs, a lot of it has come from the use of dry cutting in the engineered-stone benchtop industry, where those big slabs of stone are cut to size using handheld power saws and grinders to form those holes for the sink, the taps or the stovetop.

That generates the crystalline silica dust which can be released into the air and inhaled. We know that using water in this process can suppress the generation of dust significantly but, until recently, dry processing was by and large the way the industry operated. The Victorian government has done some good analysis, and they have found that almost 70 per cent of workers with silicosis in Victoria indicated they spent more than half their time at work in an environment where dry processing was occurring.

Queensland was the first state to ban dry-cutting in 2018 and Victoria followed in 2019, with New South Wales in 2020, so there has been progress made to protect workers. Around the time the Victorian government brought in its ban it launched enforcement blitz, and WorkSafe Victoria implemented a free screening program for the estimated 1,400 workers in the stone bench industry across the across the state. The findings are interesting. Some 18 per cent of the initial 324 workers who completed the assessments were diagnosed with silicosis. There were similar results in Queensland where, as of February 2021, the government had screened about a thousand stone masons exposed to crystalline silica dust from artificial stone. Some 21 per cent were diagnosed with silicosis, including 32 with the most severe form, called progressive massive fibrosis. These are the sorts of numbers that show the extent of the problem.

It's worth noting now that I am one of many people who, in organising a new kitchen a decade ago, opted for this product in my kitchen. There are lots of other options to use when it comes to the material of choice for a kitchen benchtop. In Australia, around 45 per cent of the benchtop market is artificial stone—compare that to the United States, where it is only 14 per cent. That is one of the reasons the numbers we are seeing are really quite high. It is worthwhile saying to people—and I would take this advice now had my house burned down this year and not 10 years ago, and were I building a new kitchen—that there are many alternatives that contain little or no silica, like wood, laminate, steel or marble.

That brings us to where we are as a parliament and the sorts of things we can do to be tackling this very insidious issue. The Albanese government is committed to tackling occupational respiratory diseases and we are bringing in a suite of reforms to ensure Australia's prevention and treatment measures are world-class, protecting workers from unacceptable health risks. The package includes the National Silicosis Prevention Strategy and the national action plan, done in collaboration with health professionals, unions and industry. We're also investing in educational campaigns for employers, workers and health professionals to improve not only that prevention, which is so important, but also the detection and treatment. We are also exploring measures to limit the use of engineered stone, including an import ban—that's where individual consumers have the individual choice and can make a difference. We're also working with states and territories to ensure we have a coordinated approach to keep workers safe. This particular bill delivers on the recommendations of the National Dust Disease Taskforce to establish a National Occupational Respiratory Disease Registry. It follows the increase that we have seen, and will capture information relating to respiratory diseases that are believed to have been occupationally caused or exacerbated. It will support the use of the information to understand the true scale of all these diseases in Australia and take action to reduce further exposures in the workplace.

The bill will require medical specialists in the fields of respiratory and sleep medicine, as well as occupational
and environmental medicine, who diagnose certain occupational respiratory diseases to notify the diagnosis, the patient and the exposure details to the national registry via an online portal. These physicians may also notify other occupational respiratory diseases, where that individual provides consent—and you're going to hear the word 'consent' throughout this debate because there is a recognition that there needs to be protection of individuals' privacy, and that is embedded in the design of this register. Consistent with the recommendation of the task force, initially only silicosis will be a prescribed occupational respiratory disease. The Minister for Health and Aged Care will be able to add other diseases to the list of prescribed diseases, following consultation with the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer and each state or territory. The bill recognises the potential burden that notification will have on physicians. We are very mindful that we are asking medical practitioners to do more things, so this limits the mandatory elements that must be notified to a 'minimum notification'. A minimum notification will include sufficient information to identify an individual with a diagnosed occupational respiratory disease, the respiratory disease that has been diagnosed and details of the likely exposure that resulted in the disease, including the last and main exposures.

Further additional information can also be supplied where the individual has provided consent, and there are many people that I crossed paths with who want these details to be known because they know that information may provide additional insights into detection, prevention or treatment. That additional information may include relevant medical test results and demographic and lifestyle information, such as their smoking history and employment status. They may want to add details of each job where the individual believes that they had an exposure to a respiratory disease-causing agent. A really good example demonstrates that it isn't only those who are holding the saws and cutting the stone who are affected. We've had a really disturbing case study of a woman who worked in the office of a quarry where she ended up covered in dust every day without having any idea of what the effects of that exposure year after year might be. Being able to capture those details and some of the history of that person might provide really important insights, but each individual will determine what additional details they want captured.

In addition to ensuring notified information is available to the physicians treating that individual, the bill will enable the disclosure of notifications about that person that are made to the national registry, including to prescribed Commonwealth state or territory authorities and to state and territory health agencies and work health and safety agencies. The disclosure to state and territory health agencies and work health and safety agencies will increase awareness of the prevalence of occupational respiratory diseases in that state or territory and will enable actions to be taken to reduce further exposure of workers to those diseases.

This bill recognises that several jurisdictions have registry functions currently in operation and doesn't exclude
or limit the operation of any state or territory laws requiring the reporting or disclosure of information around
occupational respiratory diseases. Where notification is already mandatory in state legislation, the bill provides for notification of these diseases to occur through the national registry, should the state allow it. This will remove the potential for a physician in those states to be required to notify twice—that is, once nationally and once again on the state register.

The establishment of the national registry will complement actions across all Australian governments to reduce exposures in the workplace and demonstrates the government's commitment to keeping workers safe. That, ultimately, is our goal here. It is really important for those of us who care about our workers. I don't think there would be a single person in this place who would not want to know that, as someone in their community went to work, their work was not leading to them being exposed to something that could be life threatening to them down the track, so I look forward to the support of this bill by everybody in this place. It is a commitment by the Albanese government that the rights of workers and the safety of workers be at the forefront of our minds. As someone who has run a small business for 25 years and worked with many, many businesses throughout that period, I know how important our workers are, and I know that employers want to make sure they're providing a safe workplace. I hope that this bill will assist in that process by expanding the information we have.

I commend the bill to the House.