You may have seen increased attention towards silica dust exposure and the diseases it can cause in the media, lately. This is due to a crisis Australia is facing in relation to this new wave of illness, which some have likened to asbestosis. Aussie tradies, young and old, are at risk in particular of suffering from this as a result of poor workplace practice while cutting stone such as stone benches.
Over half a million Australian workers are exposed to silica dust every year. With a severely increasing number of related diseases being reported across the country, and the number of lung cancer cases resulting from silica dust exposure currently being estimated to represent around 230 per year in Australia, it is a serious concern for the nation.
This article explores what silica is, the risk factors for exposure, the diseases and symptoms that can result from this exposure, and what your options are if you or someone you love thinks they may be suffering from silicosis or a related illness including rights to workplace compensation.
Silica is a component of materials often used for benchtops, bricks and tiles, and some plastics. The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists silica as a common carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).
Some common materials containing silica include:
While there are two types of silica – crystalline and non-crystalline – it is the crystalline form that is more likely to cause disease. Quartz is the most common type of crystalline silica.
When materials containing silica are worked with, in particular when dry – for example, by cutting, drilling, angle grinding, crushing or polishing – some silica dust particles which are difficult to view with the naked eye (about 100 times smaller than a grain of sand) can be generated. These are known as ‘respirable particles’ – meaning they can penetrate deep into the lungs. It is these dust particles which are capable of causing damage or disease to the lungs.
Examples of common types of jobs where this may happen include:
It is often years after exposure that symptoms of a disease resulting from this exposure might begin.
Exposure can cause / contribute to:
Silicosis is a serious lung disease and comes in three forms: chronic (10 years’ exposure); accelerated (higher levels of exposure over 5 – 10 years) and acute (from very high exposure over a short period of time).
Symptoms of silicosis can include shortness of breath, chest pain, severe cough and fatigue.
If you are ill with these or similar symptoms and have worked in industries involving exposure to silica, you should see a doctor.
Workers and employers need to work together to prevent this disease.
Workers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace, and workers must educate themselves about the risks and take responsibility for the protection of their health.
In Queensland, dry cutting is now banned for engineered stone (due to its high level crystalline silica composition). Additionally, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland is conducting workplace audits to identify breaches of the Work Health Safety Regulation 2011, some requirements of which include:
Using water suppression and dust extraction where possible
Workplaces are under legal obligation to provide health monitoring if a worker is using certain hazardous materials (including crystalline silica), and the work is ongoing, and there is a significant risk to the worker because of the exposure.
Risk assessments (taking into account aspects such as control measures, compliance with those measures, and risk of exposure or accidental spillages, etc.) will indicate whether there is a ‘significant risk’.
If it is found to be required, the employer or contractor engaging the worker must pay for things like doctor’s fees, travel and testing costs, as well as time off work for those appointments and tests.
These must be carried out by doctors with minimum levels of competence in this area. The workplace also has a duty to obtain a report from those performing the monitoring.
It is worth mentioning that the report should only relate to the person’s health in relation to exposure to the substance – in this case, silica.
The workplace then should take action based on the report’s results and recommendations.
WorkCover Queensland deals with work-related respiratory diseases, including silicosis. If you have a valid claim, things like lost wages, medical and travel expenses, lump sum payments for permanent impairment, return to work support. Additionally, if your employer was negligent and this is able to be proved – you may be eligible to sue your employer for this.
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