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Occupational exposure to carcinogens in Australia: workers' compensation claims paid in Australia 2000-2012



 

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Conference:

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

 

Presenter:

Terry Slevin, Chair, Occupational and Environmental Cancer Committee Cancer Council Australia

 

Title:

Occupational exposure to carcinogens in Australia: workers' compensation claims paid in Australia 2000-2012

 

Presentation outline:

Terry Slevin provides an overview of a new report launched at the forum, examining workers’ compensation claims in Australia. Using Safe Work Australia data from 2000 – 2012, he suggests that less than 10 per cent of Australians who have developed cancer as a result of their work have been compensated and more needs to be done to ensure proper compensation.

Read transcript

I guess my role is to get the ball rolling today, and to some extent, it is about talking about occupational cancers.

Now, I have to say I am delighted that you are all here and we have got a pretty good rollup today, getting close to a hundred people who registered, but I have to say I was fairly worried that registrations were fairly modest, and it forced me to think about who thought that this issue was important, who really wrestles with the issue about occupational cancer exposure and wants to do something about it.

Now, clearly you do because you are here and you are investing your day and I’m delighted that is the case, but it seems to me that it is one of those issues that people don’t tend to give a lot of attention to until it lands in their workplace, until it lands in their lives, and then, it becomes a very, very big issue.

Clearly, we made a lot of progress in this space and no one is starting today with alarm bells screaming and, you know, drama being banged from the highest bell tower. This progress, this history, these successes that are worth acknowledging, but there is still a lot more work to be done, and it is an ongoing process.

Because of the report that I will be talking about in a moment, I’ve been doing some radio over the last 24 hours or so, and it is fascinating to hear a journalist’s perspective on these things, and I offer the example of glyphosate, and I suspect we will hear a bit about that today.

Lin Fritschi is in the audience. Lin Fritschi was involved in the assessment of a range of pesticides that the International Agency for Cancer Research did, and glyphosate was amongst that group that was assessed and that was elevated to 2A, probable cause of cancer.

Now, for those people who have been working with glyphosate for 20 or 30 years, that is a disturbing story. For those who are working with it now, they can do something about it. Either we can look for an alternative to serve that purpose or those who are using could be far more careful with it. What about those who have hung up their boots and aren’t working in that space anymore, but had been working with glyphosate? How do we deal with that as an issue and how do we ensure that those people if cancer comes along as a result of that, they are properly compensated?

So, what I’m going to talk to you as a kickoff this morning is about the presentation of the data that is available to us from our friends at Safe Work, Australia. We had some Safe Work folk…I haven’t seen them this morning. Is anybody here from Safe Work, yeah? I heard they were going to be coming … can’t see anybody. If you are here, see me at the morning tea break. If you would, that would be great.

And they have been very helpful in terms of making their data available to us, which comes from the various State and Territory compensation entities around Australia, which has identified those claims that had been successfully made with regard to cancer through the compensation system in Australia.

But before I go any further, I will acknowledge the work of the people who helped to put this report together. In my own staff, there is Lauren Zappa and more recently, Ellissa Tomich, and Caitlin Kameron made a contribution as well. We have got reviews from members of my committee, Deborah Glass, Lin Fritschi, Kristin Miller. Julie Hill from Safe Work Australia and Richard Webster are also important in terms of helping with some of this. The report is absolutely based on the data that is made available through Safe Work, Australia and wouldn’t have been possible without those folks.

And essentially, what we found was some fairly big and frightening numbers. What we found was that occupational exposures as per work of people like Tim Driscoll and Lin Fritschi, the estimate is roughly 5,000 new cases of cancer, and we will be hearing more about the work that that group is doing later today. Their work also suggests that roughly 3.6 million Australians could be exposed to one or more carcinogens in their workplace.

When you think about ubiquitous nature of the sun and it being connected with skin cancer, it is a very big contributor to that, but by far away, not the only one, there are many more, and there are priority carcinogens that are applicable to the Australian environment.

The other key issue is that this compensation data made clear that there was less than 8% of the expected number of cancers that had some occupational contribution for which compensation was actually paid. It suggests that there is an enormous level of under-compensation with regard to the issue of cancer.

So, that may well be as a result of the lack of awareness either of the worker or retired worker themselves or the health professional who they are dealing with when it comes to the diagnosis of their cancer. It also acknowledges the inherent difficulties and the challenges of identifying specific causes of cancer and all of the complexities that go with that.

Going down to the numbers, over the period of time of 2000 to 2012, the data for which we could get access, 4745 successful claims were being made. Now, there are various groups that are excluded from this, there is compensation made through the direct litigation process, as various entities, they have their own mechanisms in place. WA Police is one example and there are a few others, but this is a fairly very substantive kind of capture of what is likely to have been paid in terms of compensation. So, that averages at just less than 400 claims per year that have been paid.

But I thought why should I present you that data unless I know what the total number was? So, the folks at Safe Work last week sent me the numbers, and I was astounded to learn that it was 4.16 million claims made over that same period of time. So, 2000 to 2012, 4.16 million compensation claims, that astounded me. You may be … you might have guessed that. You might be familiar with that data more than me, but it is frighteningly a big number from where I sat or about 360,000 cases per year.

Now, I’ve already mentioned sun exposure has been a major contributor to that. In terms of the numbers, sun-exposed related cancers have made up for more than 53% of the total number of claims and asbestos made up 26% of those claims in terms of sheer numbers. And so, that is the representation with mesothelioma, and then there are a number of points, which as you can see the skin cancer one, it is the second. Let’s see it is the fourth bar down and it is the fifth bar down, and it is the sixth bar down. So, they are separated into various versions of skin cancer on the way in which the claims data was accumulated.

Now, it comes to the cost. Again, I have the same period of time, $360.5 million was paid out and an average cost of about $30 million per year, but again, this is out of a total compensation pool over the same period of time of $54 billion. So, that is about $4.5 billion per year, and you won’t be surprised to learn by the nature of the occupational safety and health system and specifically the compensation system, three quarters of those were due to injuries. So, cancer claims, in terms of dollars made up 0.006% of the total claims paid. So, we are not talking about a huge proportion of the amount of money being paid when it comes to cancer. So, compensation, in terms of years at the low end, about $50 million in one year, in 2000-2001 up to 2006-2007 sparked at $42 million.

And again, for those who know anything about the system, won’t be at all surprised to learn that mesothelioma made up 73% of the total cost of claims. So, that obviously indicates the severity of the disease, but also acknowledges the clear connection that everybody in the community can make between asbestos exposure and the prospect of mesothelioma. The cost in terms of skin cancers and the cost of claims made up about 15% of the total. So, it is essentially the same data represented on a graph and you can see that peripheral line is the total number of claims and the light blue line below is the total cost of the mesothelioma-related claims. So, you can see they are very, very closely mirrored. So, asbestos is still playing an enormous part of the issue of occupational cancer in Australia despite the fact that it has been banned in Australia in its various forms for many decades.

So, my message is a relatively simple one. To kick the day off, we could get into a lot more detail in terms of what are the carcinogens, in terms of what are the things we need to do about those, but that is what the rest of the day is very much about. Today is very much about exploring that there will be more data material looking at the issues about the causes and the solutions with regard to occupational cancer throughout the day, I hope.

There is no doubt some progress has been made, and I have mentioned that it has been action with regard to asbestos, but that doesn’t mean more … doesn’t need to be done. It certainly does. UV radiation, we have still got a substantial proportion of workplaces that have an outdoor workforce regularly exposed to UV radiation, that don’t have a clear policy in place when it comes to sun protection. Progress has been made in terms of tobacco smoking. You can actually go into a restaurant, an old bar, and in most places and enjoy a smoke-free environment in Australia, but there are still places, casinos and the like where people are exposed to environmental tobacco smoke.

So, into the future, it does seem obvious to say that we should be aiming to minimise exposure to any known carcinogens in the workplace, but there is also the challenge to ensure that we keep on top of those new issues as they arise, as assessments are made, as data … new data comes forward to identify what potential carcinogens are real carcinogens.

So, in the meantime, we have got a lot more work to do. I am delighted that you are here that help us talk about that through the course of the day, and it is great of you to dedicate one of your work days to help wrestle with this challenge. So, with that in mind, I will thank you, and I will … actually, one of the other things I wanted to say was as part of the event … this is very much about a discussion. We have got … I think, a comfortable size of group of roughly a hundred people and I’m really keen to encourage discussion.

So, I’m keen to encourage questions from the floor. I like them through the course of presentations that I do, other people prefer to keep them at the end, but I’m very happy to take questions along the way, either now or during the breaks and have a conversation as to how we can take this issue forward. So, I encourage you to engage your brain and become a participant rather than an observer in today’s events. So, if I encourage you to do that, I will give you a chance if anybody does have any opening questions or comments? Please.

Male Speaker: Will the contents and slides be made available?

Terry Slevin: Ah yes, I’m very pleased you have asked that question because along with the videoing that we are doing today - this mob is really good - not only do they do the video of the presentations, I’ve just realised that you would probably count that as a promo Bruce. Would you count that as a promo? You probably will.

They will do an edited version of the presentation. So, you won’t hear all the ramblings that I just did in the clips that would be available on both the Safe Work Australia website and the Cancer Council Australia website, but I will also put the slides alongside those as well.

So, any of your colleagues, any of the people you work with, any people with an interest in the issue can capture the main presentations in an edited format, so that the key messages are available to folks who weren’t able to make it today.


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

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