Chaos looms following deadly workplace shutdown

THE State Government is blitzing every stone-cutting business in Queensland in a complete U-turn of its policing of the deadly silicosis disease.

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ) now plans to visit all 166 firms across the state after a Gold Coast Bulletin investigation exposed the shocking number of young men diagnosed with the secret dust killer.

Inspectors have so far issued 30 enforcement actions after visiting 14 stone-benchtop fabrication workplaces, one was so hazardous it was immediately shutdown. There are 44 sites to be inspected on the Gold Coast.

Penalties for businesses flouting improvement notices and failing to adequately protect fabricators from inhaling potentially fatal silica dust include on-the-spot fines of up to $3600 or other enforcement action.

It is a massive change of tact from WHSQ which last month said it would re-audit only a sample of the stone-benchtop industry – eight months after it was asked to – after inquiries by the Bulletin.

Further Bulletin reports have revealed 179 Queensland stonecutters have silicosis; workers are scared to lose their jobs by speaking up as it is largely left to employers to ensure staff are screened; and an international supplier of toxic engineered stone also knew of the potential fatal risks it presented to stonecutters at least 17 years ago, but continued to sell it.

Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union boss Royce Kupsch said inspectors from the Office of Industrial Relations (OIR) told him the level of compliance “had been dreadful”.

“I can’t believe employers in the sector haven’t woken up to what needs to be done in order to keep their workers safe from potentially fatal silica dust,” he said.

However, he felt there had been a policy decision by the State Government to “show leniency” to small businesses because of COVID-related financial concerns.

“We believe the OIR have given small business owners, with less than 19 staff, relief from the Compliance Monitoring and Enforcement Policy, this has been COVID-related,” he said.

Mr Kupsch said proof of this was evident in the fact that only four workplaces had been given an on-the-spot fines, with 22 given improvement notices in which they had one-to-four days to fix a problem, depending on how hazardous noncompliance issues were.

“There should be zero tolerance,” he said.

Mr Kupsch said workplaces that broke industrial relation laws should be given on-the-spot fines, not improvement notices. “There should be no second chances.”

“This is the biggest talking point outside of asbestos and the message still hasn’t sunk it.”

“It has to be said that the OIR have done a very good job and have been very articulate in regard to health and safety regulations and given workplaces detailed advice and information on how to ensure the safe fabrication of engineered stone.”

But a spokesman from the Office of Industrial Relations said there had been no change to WHSQ policy.

“There has been no relaxation of monitoring or enforcement action and our inspectors continue to enforce our strict laws and regulations in the stone benchtop industry,” he said.

“During this COVID-19 pandemic, the OIR has continued to issue fines, improvement notices and infringement notices depending on the circumstances.”

A spokesman from WHSQ said the Queensland Government’s silica stone benchtop fabricator compliance campaign started on August 3 and was scheduled to run until December.

“Follow-up visits of non-compliant workplaces to be completed by May next year,” he said.

“All 166 known Queensland stone-benchtop fabrication workplaces will be visited and assessed as part of the campaign. So far, 14 workplaces have been assessed with 30 enforcement actions taken.

“Five stone-benchtop fabricators in the Gold Coast region have been assessed, with three of them issued five improvement notices.

“This should serve as a reminder for all stone benchtop fabrication workplaces that the appropriate safety measures should be upheld at all times.

“Without the proper precautions, we know how deadly this material can be for workers. And stone benchtop fabricators have a duty of care to keep their employees safe.

“It is important they read, understand and follow the practical guidance on how to manage risks set out in the Managing respirable crystalline silica dust exposure in the stone benchtop industry Code of Practice 2019 (the Code).

“This includes work to fabricate, process, install, maintain or remove engineered and natural stone benchtops.”

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