'Brave' silicosis victim in court to see Boral fined

·3-min read

Construction giant Boral has been fined $180,000 for failing to ensure its workers used respiratory masks correctly while exposed to deadly silica.

The company was sentenced in Melbourne Magistrates Court on Monday after pleading guilty to failing to provide and maintain a safe working environment that was without risk to health and safety.

WorkSafe Victoria charged Boral after investigating work practices at its Montrose quarry in Melbourne's east in 2018 and 2019.

It found on October 4, 2018, and October 1 and October 10, 2019, five workers were exposed to deadly silica dust that was generated from processing the quarry rock.

Boral failed to ensure the workers were wearing respiratory masks correctly while working on site over those days, Magistrate Carolyn Burnside said in her sentencing remarks.

Dust produced from silica has been linked to the incurable lung disease silicosis and cancer.

Ms Burnside said Boral was "well and truly aware" of dust management guidelines released in 2016 and the surrounding literature around the risk of silica.

Measures to reduce that risk were "quite straight forward and easy to maintain" even if it took more time, the magistrate said.

"The effort should have been made," she said.

Ms Burnside also acknowledged Joanna McNeill, a former Boral worker who was diagnosed with silicosis in 2019.

She was exposed to the silica dust while working in administration at the Montrose site between 2013 and 2019.

Ms McNeill was not one of the workers listed on the WorkSafe charges but she did read a victim impact statement to the court.

The magistrate thanked her for her bravery and noted Boral had responded with an apology, telling the court it has since made considerable changes to ensure worker safety.

Ms Burnside noted Boral had pleaded guilty at a relatively early stage, which showed its remorse.

She convicted and fined the company $180,000, noting the maximum available penalty was $1.45 million.

Ms McNeill, who is pursuing a civil case against Boral, said she wanted to raise awareness of the dangers of silica.

"My whole life has changed as a result of this diagnosis," she told reporters outside court.

"I cannot connect with the people like I used it and it's had a huge impact on my relationships. I can't even walk to the letterbox so I'm very scared of what my future holds."

Ms McNeill said silica was as dangerous as asbestos.

"The dangers of silica dust has been known for many years and it is devastating that a business the size of Boral did not keep me safe," she said.

Percy Pillai, from the Victorian branch of the Australian Workers Union, said Boral's fine was so small it was almost like pocket change for the multinational company.

He said the union would continue to support workers who were exposed to silica dust.

High levels of silica are found in engineered stone, commonly used in kitchen benchtops.

An estimated 600,000 Australian workers have been exposed to the dust through mining, construction, building and manufacturing.

Safe Work Australia is investigating a national ban on products using silica.