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Building Construction, Industrial Relations

Court Hearing for Sibelco Silicosis Cases

AWU 4 mins read

The Australian Workers Union stands in solidarity with three of its members, Kevin Weekes, Craig Robertson, and Alan Jenkins, as their cases against former employer Sibelco are heard in Wonthaggi court today (14th of June 2024). These men, among many others, have been diagnosed with silicosis, a debilitating lung disease caused by prolonged exposure to silica dust in their workplaces.

Call for Action and Legal Support

The stories of Kevin, Craig, and Alan highlight the urgent need for stronger safety regulations and comprehensive support for workers affected by silicosis. Their struggle for justice represents a broader call to action for improved workplace safety standards.

The AWU, alongside legal representation from Maurice Blackburn, has been campaigning vigorously for enhanced safety measures and better protections for workers exposed to silica dust. These efforts have led to new regulations mandating improved safety standards in workplaces handling silica dust.

Rising Concern and Government Action

The rise in silicosis cases across Australia, particularly among young workers, has prompted widespread concern. Silicosis, with its potential to lead to lung cancer and other serious health issues, demands immediate attention from both government and industry.

The recent Federal Government's decision to prohibit the importation and production of engineered stone underscores the increasing acknowledgment of the need to eradicate health hazards linked to silica dust. However, while engineered stone represents only a fraction of these hazards, numerous industries remain unmonitored. The AWU continues to fight against hazardous dust-related diseases alongside Maurice Blackburn.

Upcoming Court Decision

The future of Sibelco will be decided in the Wonthaggi court this Friday, June 14, at 9:30 am. This case keeps the spotlight on the wider issue of silicosis and the ongoing struggle for justice and improved workplace safety standards.

Timeline of Negligence and Advocacy

February 2019: Diagnosis and Initial Response

  • Affected Individuals: Kevin Weekes, Alan Jenkins, and Craig Robertson were diagnosed with silicosis following CT scans from workplace testing.
  • Notification: Each was informed individually by the company doctor via phone and advised to start getting their affairs in order, causing significant distress.
  • Workplace Safety: They were instructed not to return to work due to unsafe conditions. A respiratory physician, accompanying a representative to the site, also refused to allow their return.

Previous Practices at Sibelco

  • Annual Testing: Sibelco conducted annual X-ray tests, with results sent to their head office in Queensland and not disclosed to employees.
  • Respiratory Protection Requests: Over the years, employees requested Powered Air Purifying Respirators, initially refused. Kevin eventually received a second-hand, unusable respirator.
  • Work Environment: The silica sand processing facility had inadequate ventilation, leading to extensive dust exposure. Cleaning methods further dispersed silica dust.

WorkSafe Inspections and Actions

  • Initial Inspection: WorkSafe inspected the site on April 10, 2019, two months after the diagnoses, finding inadequate risk controls.
  • ARREO Inspection: Ongoing unsafe practices were observed, including the use of compressed air hoses to clean silica dust.
  • Prosecution Basis: WorkSafe's prosecution cited past dust monitoring results exceeding exposure levels, with the company failing to control these hazards.
  • Legal Determination: WorkSafe determined Sibelco was in blatant contravention of Sections 21 of the OHS Act and Regulation 163 of the OHS Regulations 2017.

Quote attributed to Ronnie Hayden, AWU Victorian Branch Secretary, who will be in Wonthaggi today:

"This isn’t just about individual cases; it’s about holding negligent companies accountable and ensuring that no more workers are sacrificed for profit. We are demanding justice and sweeping changes to protect every worker from the deadly risks of silicosis. Sibelco and many other companies out there show a blatant disregard for safety, and this must stop. We will not rest until it does."

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A statement from Kevin Weekes

In early February 2019, I received a life-altering phone call from my doctor while I was at work. The news shattered my world into a million pieces. In shock and feeling lost, I was called to the office to take the call, only to find the entire building devoid of any managers or support. With no one around, I walked back to my area and broke down in tears. Everything around me seemed to be moving at a million miles an hour, while I felt as though I was trudging through quicksand. What should I do now? What does this mean? What is silicosis?

The doctor's words echoed in my mind repeatedly: "You have silicosis. Do you have your affairs in order?" I replied no, and he suggested I start getting them in order immediately.

I went home that day and shared the devastating news with my wife. She quickly turned to the computer to look up silicosis. We were both in shock, overwhelmed by the conflicting information online—images and stories of death and suffering. How could this happen? How would we tell our children?

That evening, when our kids returned home, we sat them down and explained what was happening. It was one of the hardest conversations we've ever had.

By early September 2019, I was made redundant, along with two other workers diagnosed with silicosis at the same time. We were sent off with a BBQ, but not a single corporate manager was present to say goodbye or express any sympathy. I felt we deserved at least a simple, "I’m sorry this has happened to you."

My life felt hopeless. Where do I go from here? What do I do? What is going to happen to me?

I used to be very fit and energetic. I loved going for walks and hikes with my eldest daughter. However, over the COVID period, I saw my health decline rapidly. I went from taking long walks to waterfalls and walking 5-10 kilometres to cutting my walks in half, needing frequent rests to catch my breath. Eventually, I could only walk around the block. One dreadful day, I couldn't breathe at all, and my daughter had to run home to get the car to pick me up.

My health has deteriorated in many ways. I can't have long conversations without my lips turning purple from lack of oxygen. I've developed Raynaud's Syndrome, causing my fingers and toes to suffer from poor circulation. I feel the cold intensely, often shivering despite having the heater and blankets on.

I will most likely never be able to work again, and the financial stress is overwhelming. I don't know what the future holds. I had so many plans, but now, everything is uncertain. I feel lost and helpless. How long do I have left to live? What will happen to me? There are so many questions with very few answers.



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