The ACTU, along with a coalition of workplace health and safety-related organisations across Australia and New Zealand, have called for the urgent establishment of a register for approved respirators.
The presence in the market of non-compliant, fake and faulty disposable masks is, says the group, an immediate threat to the health and safety of workers.
President of the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists Andrew Orfanos says there is an immediate and urgent case for Federal Government intervention to protect the health of Australians.
“The situation is out of hand. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our market has been flooded with more than 100 million respirators of different types and standards, and amongst the suitable products are fake, faulty, counterfeit and sub-standard products,” he says.
“Australian businesses are rightly confused about which ones are suitable. They need to know what they’re buying, and the government needs to get a handle on this issue.”
The coalition has recently released A Guide to Buying P2, or Equivalent, Respirators for use in the Australian and New Zealand Work Environment, developed to help businesses navigate their way through what is a messy issue before purchasing face masks.
However, Orfanos warns that although the Guide will help, it’s not enough.
“We need national leadership,” he says.
“Fixing the problem is straightforward if the government chooses to act. We need a register and an approval process that is properly regulated.”
Naomi Kemp, chair of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety, says market confusion comes from the absence of such a process.
“Most people make an assumption that if they find a face mask for sale in Australia, it has been assessed and met a standard. This is not true,” she says.
“Too many groups are taking advantage of a voluntary system and creating confusion. This is bad for the genuine, reputable suppliers, it’s bad for the businesses that purchase the products, and it’s bad for the people who use them.”
Kemp says the dangers of unapproved respirators extend beyond the risks of exposure to, and transmission of COVID-19.
“We already had major problems with last season’s bushfires, and we are still seeing cases of black lung and silicosis which cause workplace deaths,” she says.
“With the flood of new products onto the market, we now have fake and non-conforming face masks potentially being misused in these environments as well.”
ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien says the regulation of personal protective equipment is overdue.
“The pandemic has focussed attention on masks as an essential piece of protective equipment with huge potential to save lives and prevent transmission. However, it has also made clear that regulation of PPE is grossly inadequate to ensure that the masks that Australian workers are using are up to the task,” he says.
“Australian workers, whether they need a mask to protect themselves from COVID-19 or other workplace hazards like silica dust, should be able to rely on a simple set of standards which make it clear which masks are safe to use.”
O’Brien believes that without clear and simple regulation on the issue, Australian workers and the community at large will continue to be at risk.
Kemp agrees. “Businesses need protection from the risks of using faulty equipment, and workers need protection for their health.”