Cancer Council Australia

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Occupational cancer: What are the rules we are playing by and do they need reform?


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kNOw cancer risks at work, Cockle Bay Sydney, May 2015



Deborah Vallance, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union



Occupational cancer: What are the rules we are playing by and do they need reform?


Presentation outline:

The frameworks, regulation and legislation governing workplace risk in Australia are complex. Dr Deborah Vallance provides an overview, and discusses and the challenges they create. Dr Vallance argues that a new system is required moving forward.

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I thought I’d just start off with a quote from Sharon talking at International Workers Memorial Day, April 28, 2015, and that was very much in the context of stuff that Peter talked about earlier about the Rotterdam Convention and what is happening about problems with us trying to even just decrease the trade in white asbestos. Also, just as an overarching comment perhaps to think about in terms of lobbyists and scientists.

The key agencies that work around regulating our carcinogens both chemicals and others in this country are those key ones at the national level, Safe Work Australia, NICNAS, the NPI, Agvet, Transport, and TTA. This shows how they interact. That was done in 2012 by the then Standing Committee on Chemicals, which existed to implement the recommendations from productivity commission, enquiry into plastics and chemical regulation, that report was in 2008. SCOC was set up in 2010 and has since been disbanded.

That spaghetti diagram as we tend to call it, and a number of you will have seen it before, is really because our system has evolved from many different places and so we have got multiple frameworks, we have got multiple agencies, multiple stakeholders and really each of those systems was devised for a particular grouping or sort of audience of where things were to be regulated. As productivity commission report said in 2008 our chemicals framework is fragmented and inconsistent, our carcinogens framework is fragmented and inconsistent, that it is not just the chemicals. If we just briefly look at some of the agencies, Safe Work Australia is a non-regulatory agency, but it does set the standards that are then adopted by the various state and territory jurisdictions. The important ones around chemicals and carcinogens are the modeled hazardous chemicals regulations that also include subsections on dusts, asbestos and lead etc., classification prohibited and restricted carcinogens which include some chemicals and some dusts and health surveillance.

Safe Work Australia is in a difficult position, because it is not a regulator, it coordinates all of the regulators. I was actually really pleased to see Megan mentioning about Safe Work Australia health monitoring guidelines. Those guidelines in some ways are an example of our disjointed system. Agvet chemicals are actually covered by the Agvet system and health monitoring comes out after the workers’ system and really it is getting those two to meet. There are numbers of substances on the Safe Work Australia Health Monitoring list, but the New South Wales WorkCover is picking up as workers need to have some health monitoring done, but generally you will find that in the rural sector that health monitoring is not done because the Safe Work Australia guidelines are not really publicised in that sector. NICNAS was established in 1989 to cover all of those chemicals that were existing, and then for assessment of new chemicals that came into the system. The thing about NICNAS is that it comes under a lot of fire from industry. They are up to their 13th trench of looking at assessments and updating information on all of those chemicals, about 40,000 of them were on their AICS list, they are looking at 3000 of them and assessing their hazards and publishing that information and calling for public comment and they have been exposed to numerous and many reviews.

Our health monitoring list had not been updated since it was put in place by NOSH in the early 90s and we were really doing nothing on cancers. The positive things are that Safe Work Australia has in this moment is just hopefully making a decision in the next six weeks to update the list of substances that will require health monitoring.

The national occupational cancer is actually part of the Australian Occupational Health and Safety Strategy for 2012 to 2022. Exposure standards, which have been mentioned earlier on today, are an interesting mix of where regulation around health and safety meets with what is called government better regulation and I will come back to that later on. The national pollution inventory list of 93 substances in 1991, some of those carcinogens, that list has not been changed, that list has not been regulated, it is just an admissions list and it is for stuff over 10 tonnes that comes out of our place.

Agvet veterinary medicines, their products are looked on how they are used, so the labels have traditionally been about using rather than the actual inherent qualities of the substances themselves. APVMA can review and restrict or ban, they do that very occasionally.

We have been under perpetual review. This is just some of them. I started to look at all of the submissions that I had made over the last five years on chemical reviews and I got totally lost. There is an Agvet one we have done two or three of those, we have done three or four of the NICNAS ones, we have done productivity commissions a couple of times, we have done the Better Regulation Ministerial Partnership drafts regulatory impact statement in 2013, Commission of Audit, and looking at what we can do about NICNAS, Safe Work Australia and Agvet, and now last week we were contacted and had to get another lot of discussions that structure was changing Commonwealth chemical assessment functions. They are going to do the whole of what we do around chemicals and the reports must be done by September this year. We cannot find the terms of reference publically and that is in the context of an Australian Government Guide to Regulation, which says that regulation is introduced as a last resort, regulation hampers the economy and we look forward to a future with substantially less red tape. I have not changed those words. They are what in the government current regulation.

So how does that impact? It means to change the exposure standard in this country. Safe Work Australia has to go to the Office of Best Practice Regulation and get a regulatory impact statement done for the cost benefit analysis about whether or not a change in an exposure standard is effective in terms of meeting the requirements of the Australian Government Guide to Regulation - it means that is bloody hard to do. It means that the lead exposure standard which is there since 1994, which all of the scientists say we need to lower, will perhaps go to the Office of Best Practice, OBPR. They are currently looking at drafting up an RIS. That process started, as far as I know, formally three years ago. Anything to do with the regulations has to go through that process. It means that there is actually no encouragement for us to think outside what is called the de-regulatory box. Even the Standings Committee on Chemicals, which drew up that spaghetti diagram which has since been disbanded, their terms of reference were ultimately to reduce the regulatory burden. It is bit tough on people like Safe Work Australia to get anything done. I contend, and Australian Council of Trade Union has a policy around this saying that our current approach is really fragmented. We actually don’t assess on the inherent qualities of the chemicals or the carcinogens. We have anomalies all over the place. We don’t talk to each other across the agencies. Poor old NICNAS does a fantastic lot of work. We will go across to Safe Work Australia because all the jurisdictions are there, because of the OBPR changing something will take 5 to 10 years. I think we took 20 years for silica. I have forgotten how many reviews. I think, because we focus in the wrong way, we don’t have incentives for lots of industry to actually look at technological and technical advancements. I suppose really, does that all matter? Well we would say that it does because this quote could actually apply to carcinogens as well. It is really not, I think, that we should be talking about safer chemicals creating sustainable industry so that we can actually live on a planet that will keep going for a while longer than what it currently is.

According to GEISA, there is really a good way of looking at how to do exposures as to have a systemic approach to banning or what we call toxic use reduction. We don’t have that in this country. There are some examples that we have heard about these sort of forms before and also Canada and others, but we do not do it here. We do not prioritise our chemicals into tiers for action, although the recent work by NICNAS has been trying to do that. We have no systemic approach to transitioning from high risk to lower risk and we have no public information available on what actually comes into the country and the volumes that are used and GEISA would say that that is actually the way to put your chemicals and we can call that substances including dusts or any other carcinogen is the same approach. I am suggesting and it is only suggestion that we need a system that prioritises and encourages avoidance and phases out use of carcinogens that it links inside and outside of our work, it creates circumstances, diminishes use and hence exposures and coordinates overviews allows innovation and does not re-create the wheel.

Now, I do not know what the solution is, but if you look around there are some people who have suggested some things. The WHO Asturias Declaration in 2011 noted that you needed to work across sectors and agencies so that was a declaration about occupational cancer that Terry was at, the productivity commission did acknowledge that perhaps we needed a central agency, but dismissed it as it said that would be too complex and unrealistic, but the UNEP, the same agency that has been trying to get chrysotile listed on the Rotterdam Convention in their globe of chemical outlook in September 2011, suggested that what you actually need is a focal agency that looks for information and coordination. It actually starts to focus on toxic chemical use reduction and that starts to coordinate for consistent regulatory approaches and frameworks.

I could go into each of the sort of minutiae of the different frameworks because I think that it is actually really important, but I think that we need to at least stop looking down, which we have been doing for ages, stop looking through the lens of the Office of Best Practice Regulation and actually start looking at a way to reduce our carcinogen and chemical burden, actually look at a way that we can coordinate, we can create opportunities for good developments, for good sustainable industry in this country, whilst decreasing our exposures, and until we get outside of our very narrow approach to what regulation does or does not do, I think we will be stuck really where Mr. Tighe says about what we do in terms of the chemical and carcinogen sector. It is a lot of money. Our chemical industry in the globe is actually equivalent to the German total economy, it is not a poor group of people, it is not a place where we do not have good minds who can make some good innovation. I think the challenge for us is to actually get out of seeing regulation as a way to sort of that it blocks things and actually start to open up and think in a different way about how we handle chemicals and carcinogens at work and in the community.

Thank you.

This page was last updated on: Thursday, January 28, 2016