Faulty “life-saving” silica dust detector lands Safework in hot water

Jarrod Brown
By Jarrod Brown
5 Min Read

An audit has exposed SafeWork for releasing their award-winning silica dust-detecting device well before it was market-ready. 

The regulator launched their device, developed in partnership with the NSW government, claiming it could detect fine silica particles in worksites and help protect workers from the potentially deadly silicosis disease. 

With its ability to save countless lives, the flagship research project would even go on to win the DCS Secretary award in December of 2022. 

However, a report by NSW Auditor-General Margaret Crawford has revealed that experts within the state government became increasingly concerned about the device’s accuracy in the days before its launch. 

Technical staff within SafeWork NSW warned that the device was “not market ready” and expressed concerns over the validity of previous testing. 

Just one day before the launch of the product, dubbed the Air XS, in April 2022, another manager was provided with independent advice saying, “there isn’t enough data to assess the validity of the device”, the Auditor General found.

“Despite these concerns, the product launch occurred on April 7, 2022,” she said.

According to Ms Crawford, SafeWork failed to respond appropriately to workers’ concerns over the device’s accuracy in the months following its launch.

“This apparent lack of management action was despite the potential risks to the work health and safety of workers who may have relied on the Air XS and to the reputation of the regulator,” she said. 

“Some staff reported to us that they did not raise these risks with their managers due to concerns that to do so might affect their employment.”

As a result of the scathing report, Safework has been reported to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) over its handling of the $1.34 million contract.

Trolex, the company behind the Air Xs, claimed the audit’s implications that the device was ineffective were “simply untrue” and that Safework’s worrying results were based on “unprofessional testing” carried out on a first-generation demonstration device.

Unions NSW Secretary Mark Morey called on the government to investigate the Air XS’s reliability.

“I think the government needs to move swiftly to ascertain whether that’s correct and then act to ensure that whatever devices we have in workplaces are protecting people, and not simply leaving them exposed,” he said.

SafeWork NSW has asked the chief scientist and engineer to provide independent testing to give users of the Air XS device advice about its reliability.

Getting slack on safety

But the hits didn’t stop there. The Auditor General’s report would go on to find that Safework NSW has failed to both determine and respond to safety risks appropriately across the board, resulting in a spike in injuries across the state’s construction sites.

“An effective work health and safety regulator would, among other things, have a comprehensive performance measurement and reporting framework and would use data strategically to inform risk-based decisions. SafeWork NSW does not demonstrate either of these,” wrote Ms Crawford.

“It lacks an effective strategic and data-driven approach to respond to emerging risks – such as exposure to respirable crystalline silica, to which it was slow to respond.”

“It operates in silos with limited collaboration between teams, and it cannot demonstrate that it is making consistent and effective decisions to address non-compliance and workplace health and safety risks.”

CFMEU NSW State Secretary Darren Greenfield said he wasn’t surprised by Ms Crawford’s findings and called on the government to clean up the failing regulator.

“This shocking report confirms exactly what our union has been saying for a decade now – SafeWork NSW is taking an incredibly lazy and hands-off approach to workplace safety,” said Mr Greenfield.

“I don’t think it’s any coincidence at all that SafeWork’s increasingly casual attitude to safety has corresponded with a rise in serious injuries.

“The Auditor General’s report finds SafeWork is basically asleep at the wheel most of the time, with less than 10 per cent of letters getting a follow-up.

“I note that SafeWork NSW took eight years to respond to the emerging risk of silica dust in manufactured stone despite abundant reports about the dangers. It was only our union’s heavy media push that appeared to provide impetus to SafeWork NSW’s regulatory actions.

“The state government needs to put a broom through SafeWork and make sure it starts doing its job.”

Share This Article
Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. He has a strong passion for new and emerging consumer technology within the building sector. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.