New South Wales (NSW) has passed new laws to help track and prevent occupational dust diseases, while workplace exposure standards for respirable crystalline silica and coal dust have been halved in Western Australia (WA).
In NSW, changes to the Work Health and Safety Amendment (Information Exchange) Bill will strengthen the process of tracking, responding to and preventing deadly occupational dust diseases, such as silicosis and asbestos, NSW Minister for Better Regulation and Innovation Kevin Anderson said. Following the passage of new laws through the NSW Parliament, silicosis, asbestos and mesothelioma will now be notifiable diseases and if acquired through workplace exposure, they will be placed on a new Dust Diseases Register.
Andrews said the new laws will save lives and help stamp out workplace deaths by dust exposure. “Under the changes, these occupational dust diseases become a scheduled medical condition, requiring our doctors and nurses to notify NSW Health of identified cases, who in turn will provide this information to SafeWork NSW,” Anderson said. “Once SafeWork NSW has these notifications our inspectors can target their compliance and enforcement efforts based on each diagnosed individual’s current or previous workplaces and ultimately prevent further cases.”
In a statement, Anderson said that over the past 12 months, 344 people have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease and more than 100 with silicosis. Anderson said the Dust Diseases Register will monitor and analyse the incidence of dust diseases that are notified by NSW Health to SafeWork NSW. The NSW Government will also release the first strategy in the state’s history geared towards the protection of workers from exposure to occupational dusts, Anderson announced.
“A fundamental part of the NSW Dust Strategy 2020–2022 will be the requirement for SafeWork NSW to provide annual reports on the prevalence of dust diseases to test the effectiveness of the strategy, and ensure transparency by requiring these reports to be published and accessible to the public,” Anderson said.
The announcement by NSW of the new laws to effectively track and manage dust diseases comes as the WA Government announced it is halving the workplace exposure standard (WES) for respirable crystalline silica (RCS), which causes silicosis, and respirable coal dust. Industrial Relations Minister Bill Johnston described silicosis as an emerging workplace health issue, noting that early intervention is the only solution to managing these risks. “The changes in exposure standards are a win for workers, particularly in the stone benchtop industry, who now have the right to extra preventative measures for silicosis,” Johnston said.
The WES for RCS has been reduced to 0.05 milligrams per cubic metre (mg/m3), effective of 27 October 2020. RCS may be generated by a range of work activities, such as fabrication and installation of composite (engineered or manufactured) stone countertops, brick, concrete or stone cutting (angle grinding, jackhammering and chiselling), or excavation, tunnelling, earthmoving and drilling operations. Mining, quarrying and mineral ore treatment processes, clay and stone processing machine operations, paving and surfacing, and abrasive blasting and foundry casting can also generate RCS. Employers of workers with a risk of silicosis must provide health surveillance, with WorkSafe WA encouraging medical practitioners to provide information about the use of low-dose CT scans when screening at-risk workers.
The WES for respirable coal dust will be reduced to 1.5 mg/m3, effect on 27 October 2021. Coal dust can cause coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, also known as ‘black lung disease’, which has resulted in the deaths of underground coalmine workers in Queensland. There are two open pit coalmines in WA; with this reduction, only half the amount of respirable silica or coal dust will be allowed in the air where people are working. “WorkSafe’s inspection program has looked at more than 100 workplaces to ensure employers are aware of the risks from silica and their responsibilities under workplace safety laws,” Johnston said. “The McGowan government takes prevention and early detection very seriously and is taking steps to minimise these risks. Employers must ensure the new limits are not exceeded.”
The updated WES for RCS under the model WHS laws has already been implemented by a number of other Australian jurisdictions. Victoria implemented the WES on 17 December 2019, while the Australian Capital Territory, the Commonwealth, NSW, the Northern Territory and South Australia all implemented the reduced WES on 1 July 2020. WHS Queensland adapted the reduced WES on 1 July 2020, with the state’s coalmining, mining and quarrying industry implementing the standard on 1 September 2020.
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