32.1 The extent of occupational illness and injury in Australia is difficult to estimate because until recently there were no national statistics in relation to these occurrences. In a 1995 report, the Industry Commission estimated that every year in Australia there are over 500 fatalities as a result of traumatic injury at work; between 650 and 2,200 workers die of occupational cancers (with the majority of cancers resulting from exposure to hazardous substances); and up to 650,000 workers (one in 12) suffer illness or injury at work. A 1993 study found a strong relationship between workplace fatalities and workplace exposure to toxic vapours, dyes, asbestos, pesticides, metals, dusts, petrochemicals, solvents and allergens.[1]

32.2 The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) noted in its submission to the Inquiry that:

The health effects of exposures at the workplace are complex and multifactorial. In fact the disease outcomes of Australian workplace exposures is grossly under-researched and not understood. For example Australia has:

    • Ÿno systematic collection of information on workplace diseases eg dermatitis, asthma and cancer;

    • Ÿno reliable estimation of work related deaths … ;

    • Ÿat least 40,000 hazardous substances in use in our workplaces but … exposure standards for less than 1,000 substances;

    • Ÿno prevalence data on the use of solvents and other chemicals in our workplaces; and

    • Ÿno exposure information for employees exposed to these hazardous substances.[2]

32.3 The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) states in its National OHS Strategy 2002–2012 that:

Australia’s continuing high rates of work-related fatal and non-fatal injury and disease present a significant challenge to us all. Every year significant numbers of people die and many more are severely affected by work-related injuries and disease.[3]

32.4 In Chapter 30, the Inquiry recommended that human genetic information should not be collected or used by Australian employers except in conformity with anti-discrimination, occupational health and safety, and privacy laws, amended as recommended by this Report. In Chapter 31 the Inquiry made a range of recommendations designed to clarify and strengthen anti-discrimination laws. This chapter examines whether the occupational health and safety regime requires amendment in so far as it relates to the use of human genetic information. The chapter considers three potential uses of genetic information in employment, namely, genetic screening for work-related susceptibilities; genetic monitoring for workplace-induced injury or disease; and the protection of third party safety.

[1] See R Johnstone, Occupational Health and Safety Law and Policy: Text and Materials (1997) LBC Information Services, Sydney, 11, 13, 15. See also National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, Data on OHS in Australia: The Overall Scene (2000), Commonwealth of Australia, Sydney.

[2] Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, Submission G269, 21 December 2002.

[3] National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, National OHS Strategy 2002–2012 (2002), Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.