SafeWork NSW referred to ICAC over faulty silica monitoring device, Air XS

NSW’s workplace health and safety regulator has been referred to the anti-corruption watchdog over “significant flaws” in the procurement of inaccurate monitoring devices meant to detect toxic silica particles which were meant to protect workers using engineered stone.

In a scathing report handed down by the NSW auditor-general Margaret Crawford on Tuesday, it was revealed SafeWork NSW took eight years to “actively and sufficiently respond to the critical emerging risk of respirable crystalline silica in manufactured stone”.

The killer stone, popular in kitchen and bathroom bench tops, has since been linked to silicosis, lung cases and other lung diseases in workers exposed to the respirable crystalline silica.

As of July 1, the use, supply and manufacturing of engineered stone will be banned across the state, after Safe Work Australia found there was no safe level of silica in engineered stone.

The report was particularly critical of procuring a $18,500 air-monitoring device Air XS in 2022, which was riddled with “significant governance failings,” including missing key documentation, noncompliance with mandatory procurement policies, and concerns with the accuracy of the devices.

The failures substantiated a referral, made by the auditor-general, to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) for consideration for further investigation.

Ms Crawford said the device was purchased from UK-based company Trolex, despite multiple concerns raised by SafeWork technical staff.

“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 wrote.

The report also found staff were hesitant to raise the concerns with managers, fearing repercussions that “might affect their employment” for doing so.

SafeWork NSW also failed to “meaningfully” address a concern from an external user of the device, which questioned the device’s ability to detect silica in real-time.

Questions were also raised over the ballooning cost of purchasing the devices, which ballooned from initial estimates of $200,000 in May 2019, to a final contract cost of $1.34m just three months later.

Handing down the report, Ms Crawford issued 10 recommendations including an immediate independent investigation into the procurement of the Air XS, and identify whether the project “was affected by maladministration, fraudulent activity, or misconduct”.

In light of the report, Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said SafeWork NSW was “an ineffective regulator presiding over a broken system”.

“Workers need a hyper-vigilant regulator that will actively keep them safe at work. Instead they have one that is being referred to ICAC,” he said.

“We endorse the auditor’s recommendation for better reporting, clear KPIs and critically, for an independent investigation into its procurement practices. But the reform process must go further to prevent a problem like this emerging again.”

Just last week, an independent review of the agency by former Supreme Court judge Robert McDougall found the regulator failed to update families of deceased workers, and injured workers about ongoing investigations, and said they had a “soft approach” to investigating NSW government agencies.

NSW Work Health and Safety Minister Sophie Cotsis, who requested the review in 2022, said she was “shocked” by the matters raised in the report.

“The audit office report, together with the release of the McDougall Review last week, supports what injured workers have been saying for years about the damage the former government inflicted upon the work health and safety regime in NSW,” she said.

Ms Cotsis said the government would practical steps are taken to address the recommendations, and was working to turn SafeWork NSW into a “stand-alone work, health and safety regulator”.

“This work is critical and has already begun, but rebuilding this agency will take time after the former Liberal government mismanaged it so badly,” she said.

A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Customer Service said work was already underway to address the recommendations from the two reports.

“This starts with analysis currently under way to determine the institutional arrangements for SafeWork NSW to become a stand-alone regulator for work health and safety in NSW,” they said.

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