On 28 February 2023, the Federal Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Burke, met with his state and territory counterparts to take the first steps to ban the manufacture of silica-containing products in Australia.
Silica is a naturally occurring mineral found in quartz and is used in the manufacture of kitchen benchtops. Inhalation of its dust, which is common among stonemasons who work with the material daily, is connected with silicosis: a scarring and inflammation of the lungs that causes shortness of breath and can result in death. A recent epidemiology report estimates Australia could see 100,000 cases in the next half-century.
Silicosis is by no means a ‘new’ disease, as British factory inspector reports and state commissions in the early-twentieth century show; but the CFMEU’s recent declaration that it would ban the use of silica by its members in 2024 has given the cause an impetus. At the end of the meeting in late February, the ministers unanimously agreed to ask SafeWork Australia to investigate a ban on silica, with Tony Burke suggesting in a Radio National interview that morning the Commonwealth could act even before SafeWork’s recommendations were made.
The obvious precedent for the silicosis crisis is asbestos – the ‘magic mineral’ that was resistant to fire and cheap to produce, but caused lung diseases likes asbestosis and mesothelioma. Silica hardly has the same importance for national development as asbestos once did, but the two minerals’ toxic properties are enough for politicians and union officials to make the comparison. “[S]ilica has the risk of becoming the new asbestos,” Burke told Canberra journalists; and silica is “the asbestos of the 2020s,” warned CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith.
Asbestos is now being used as a blueprint for the Commonwealth’s response to silica – specifically as an example of how not to regulate a toxic substance. It took fifty-four years after the Commonwealth government received a 1930 UK Home Office report on asbestosis for state governments to act on asbestos, and seventy-three years to ban it at a national level. In Burke’s words, “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.”
The Albanese government has used this asbestos “mistake” to motivate its swift action on silica; but it simultaneously suggests an alternate policy which accepts and tolerates silicosis for the short-term future.
In trying to understand the lag between the knowledge of asbestos’ harms and its banning, some historians have argued that asbestos firms concealed information about its danger from workers and state inspectors; others that asbestos’ utility as a fire resistant material outweighed its harms for most of the twentieth century and its ban was irrational.
A more useful way to understand this “mistake” is to think of it as a long-term negotiation of risk by capital, labour, and the state. The hazards of asbestos work were broadly known by the mid-twentieth century via medical reports or word-of-mouth among workers. The risk of coming into contact with asbestos was offset by high award wages for the asbestos industry, the low price of fibro building materials, and the brief periods of prosperity brought to regional towns with asbestos mines. In the 1970s and 1980s – roughly when mesothelioma cases started to appear in large numbers in the population – this risk became unacceptable for workers and homeowners in Australia, which they communicated through large-scale political organisation and action. We can understand the last few years as an equivalent period for silica workers.
The turning points in asbestos regulation were almost always precipitated by public campaigns organised by victims, unions, or communities. The removal of asbestos insulation from the National Library followed the implementation of a sixteen-week picket line by Peter O’Dea and the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in 1983. The Dust Diseases Tribunal of New South Wales was created by the Greiner Liberal government in 1989 after a Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens Association of Australasia-led (FEDFA) slowdown in the state’s power plants the previous year. And the Hawke Labor government’s funding of a Mr Fluffy removal scheme in Canberra in 1988 followed months of meetings between ministers and the ACT Asbestos Support Group. It would not be surprising if Smith and the CMFEU looked to these previous campaigns as examples to follow.
Until 2003, Australia had a patchwork asbestos regulatory scheme which followed the trail of protests and rallies. The immensity of the asbestos problem partly necessitated this approach. When the Hawke Cabinet estimated in late 1983 that a nation-wide scheme to remove asbestos from public buildings would cost $6.8 billion, it instead chose to focus on those cases which gained significant social and political momentum among the public.
The lag was also a response to changing attitudes and values regarding work, health, and compensation in the twentieth century. The ‘she’ll be right’ tolerance of accidents in blue collar labour has largely faded. Neoliberalism’s contraction of the welfare state and shifting of the burden of workplace safety away from the state and onto employers and workers has incentivised the latter to find new avenues for compensation. And the spread of fibro houses during post-war suburbanisation transformed asbestos from an occupational hazard into a domestic bogeyman, with middle-class homeowners able to wield their political clout to influence policy.
The CFMEU’s silica battle enters a vastly different context than the asbestos campaigns just a few decades ago. Most significantly, it enters a post-asbestos Australia with an already existent logic and vocabulary equipped for dust diseases. So far, Burke has used the asbestos example to signal a universal ban of silica, but he could just as easily use it to justify a soft ban that conditions future manufacturing under strict workplace safety conditions. What will determine the form of the impending regulations will not be SafeWork Australia’s recommendations, but whether the CFMEU can sustain its campaign over the next twelve months.
Cover image: Cleaning asbestos, 1985 (State Library of South Australia).