Construction giant Boral fined over silica dust safety breaches
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Boral has been convicted and fined $180,000 after pleading guilty to exposing staff to dangerous silica dust by not enforcing correct mask use.
WorkSafe Victoria prosecuted the construction giant over its failure to provide and maintain a system in which staff were required to wear respiratory protective equipment, that equipment was fit-tested and safety measures were followed.
A magistrate said Boral should have maintained ways to eliminate or reduce the risk to workers.Credit: Louie Douvis
Magistrate Carolyn Burnside found Boral was aware of the availability and suitability of safety equipment, and it had been notified of the dangers of silica dust exposure.
“It seems to me that the real failure in this case was the lack of insistence or enforcement or proper supervision to ensure that all employees actually wore the masks and wore them properly,” she said in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Monday. “The availability [and] suitability of ways to eliminate or reduce the risk was, in my view, quite straightforward and could have been easily maintained.”
Former Boral employee Joanna McNeill was diagnosed with silicosis in 2019 after being exposed to dust while working at Boral’s Montrose quarry from 2013 to 2019.
The 37-year-old fought back tears outside court, saying she fears for her future and that of her young children now she suffers from the incurable condition.
“I’m very scared about what my future holds. Mentally I [survive] day by day,” she said. “I’ve definitely gone downhill since my diagnosis, I’ve definitely struggled, especially being a mum of two little girls.
“I feel angry that I was exposed to the silica dust in my work, and that this was allowed even to happen. The dangers of silica dust have been known for many years and it is devastating that a business the size of Boral did not keep me safe.”
A Boral spokesman said the company accepted the sentence but would not be making further comment.
The sentence was mitigated by Boral’s early plea of guilty, indications of remorse and it agreeing to pay WorkSafe’s legal costs, the court heard.
An investigation by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes revealed in February that stonemasons have been inhaling carcinogenic silica dust when cutting engineered stone benchtops containing up to 95 per cent silica.
It led to one of the world’s largest stone benchtop companies and a coalition of health experts separately calling for a ban on products blamed for a deadly silicosis epidemic.
Maurice Blackburn dust diseases legal specialist Leah O’Keefe said workers being exposed to silica dust was avoidable.
“We must ensure that every workplace is safe and that the exposure to silica dust is stopped. The prosecution of employers is really important,” she said.
Percy Pillai, occupational health and safety director at the Australian Workers’ Union, said the fine was “pocket money” for a company the size of Boral.
In statements Boral previously made in court, it said it was deeply saddened by the impact of McNeill’s diagnosis and her condition brought into focus that the “importance of managing dust … is very real”.
The magistrate Burnside, paraphrasing Boral, said: “Joanna’s statement has made crystal clear in the mind of the company the importance of the systems, which are now in place, and ensuring they are always followed. We accept we need to always focus on the risks related to silica dust and we accept the very high standard we need to continue to meet. We are very sorry for any employee who suffers harm at work and we feel very sad for Joanna. We thank Joanna for her bravery.”
The court heard Boral had faced court over other WorkSafe matters in the past. Burnside said if Boral had pleaded not guilty she would have imposed a fine in the region of $450,000.
Civil claims are being pursued against Boral over the exposures.
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