In 2018 silicosis took centre stage in the debate about the occupational dust diseases in Australia. There were multiple stories in the media about new cases in young tradesmen in the building industry and reappearance of the disease in mining. ABC ran a series of articles in October last year alerting the public to silica crisis that echoes the asbestos disaster of the 1980th.
Silicosis is historically associated with the mining industry where sufferers develop the disease after a long career underground
where airborne silica-containing dust isn’t adequately controlled. It can take up to 40 years for workers to develop a chronic condition. Alarmingly the health professionals are now seeing an increasing number of cases in the engineering stone industry where young tradesmen are diagnosed with accelerated silicosis in under ten years.
It’s not surprising as the engineered stone used to manufacture kitchen, bathroom and laundry benchtops can contain up to 90% of silica. Marble contains only 5%. The silica dust released during cutting, drilling or blasting of the artificial stone is so toxic that it can create accelerated silicosis sometimes in less than five years.
According to some media reports in the past three financial years in Victoria there have been 16 silicosis claims by stonemasons, and in NSW there were 23 total silicosis claims, some by stonemasons. It is believed that this number will rise as more workers get tested.
New silicosis cases in mining in NSW and Queensland put further spotlight on the emerging silicosis crisis. In Queensland with 30,0000 staff working across 50 operating mines, the lung occupational disease was a burning topic since new cases of CWP (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) were diagnosed back in 2015.
The Report No.2 issued by the 55th Parliament Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis Select Committee on re-identification of CWP in Queensland, confirmed 21 coal mine workers in the state have been diagnosed with pneumoconiosis as of 29 May 2017.
The spike in silicosis cases urged the federal government to include the topic on the agenda at the COAG (Council of Australian Governments) meeting in October last year. The health ministers discussed and supported the notion to write to Safe Work Australia requesting to establish standards and review policies around occupational lung diseases. The government issued a warning about the risks of working with the engineered stone without appropriate PPE and urged all workers in that industry to be tested. The health ministers also called for a national dust lung disease register to be urgently established. Queensland seems to be leading the way by announcing such register is to be introduced in the near future. The state has also banned all uncontrolled dry cutting of the engineered stone.
There were also calls for the federal government to review the import laws in regards to artificial stone and introduce mandatory health screening.
This is a developing topic so all workers, business owners and OHS and health professions should pay close attention to silicosis crisis news.
While the government is reacting by reviewing the industry standards, OHS requirements and working with Safe Work Australia to update the industry safe work practices and policies, dust control measures and appropriate PPE remain the best tools to avoid being part of the silicosis statistics.