Wins for worker health protection this week

We appreciate that our members are involved across many industry sectors working to protect workers from a range of occupational exposures. Two of the most common occupational hazards occupational hygienists encounter are crystalline silica and occupational noise. There have been two critical milestones on both hazards this week.

As many of our members will know, the AIOH has been advocating for improved protection from exposure to respirable crystalline silica for workers across Australia for many years. We have provided numerous evidence-based submissions to state and federal government inquiries, including extensive evidence to Safe Work Australia as part of the Consultation on the Regulatory Impact Statement. We have published independent research into the experiences of occupational hygienists on the prevention of the silicosis epidemic, we have worked with other professional associations, experts, and unions to advocate for improved protections for workers from silica-related diseases strongly, and we have met with numerous decision makers including ministers to support our position. During in this time we stood up two targeted initiatives Breathe Freely and RESP-FIT aimed at raising awareness of the hazard and its control measures aimed at helping workplaces until the more enduring protections came.

On Tuesday, WHS Ministers met and agreed to implement several reforms as a priority. Most notable of which was stronger regulation of high-risk crystalline silica processes for all materials (including engineered stone) across all industries. The reforms include a requirement to conduct air monitoring and report workplace exposure standard exceedances to the relevant regulator and scoping new and updated model Codes of Practice for at-risk industries.

Ministers also agreed to further analysis and consultation on prohibiting the use of engineered stone under the model WHS laws, including consideration of silica content levels and other risk factors and a national licensing system for products that are not subject to a ban or in the case of legacy products. Safe Work Australia has been charged with the investigation and consultation needed to progress the prohibition and report back as quickly as possible and within six months at the latest.

The other historic decision this week was in defence of hearing health. In a welcome reversal of a 2013 exemption, the NSW Government announced on Wednesday that clause 58 of the NSW Work Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (WHS Regulations) requiring Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBUs) to provide audiometric testing to workers would finally commence. Although every other Australian jurisdiction had enacted these requirements, NSW, Australia’s most populous state, with the most workers at risk of noise-induced hearing loss, had not – until this week.

We, therefore, welcome the NSW Government’s decision as it will provide increased protection for workers exposed to hazardous noise through the early detection of noise-induced hearing loss.

Our members are encouraged to inform themselves of the details of these submissions and the work of the External Affairs Committee which can be found at Publications & Papers – AIOH