Many Australians are aware of the serious and devastating health problems associated with exposure to asbestos. Although asbestos has been banned for many years in Australia, the effects are still being felt, with more than 10,000 people succumbing to diseases associated with asbestos exposure since the early 1980s.
Sadly, there are other, lesser-known dangers in dust that some workers are exposed to daily. Coal miners can face the serious risk of black lung disease after exposure to coal dust. And we’re seeing an increase in cases of silicosis among workers after exposure to silica through the cutting, grinding and drilling of certain products.
In this article, we look at the impact of dust diseases in Australia, and how to get help if you think you’ve developed health problems as a result of being exposed to dust in your workplace.
What’s the impact of asbestos in Australia?
Asbestos is a mineral that can cause several serious and life-threatening illnesses. When products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny fibres are released into the air and can be breathed in and become trapped in the lungs. This causes scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to health problems, including:
- Lung cancer
- Pleural disease.
Although asbestos hasn’t been used or sold here since the mid-1980s, Australia used to be one of world’s biggest consumers of asbestos products. We mined it here, and after the Second World War we used it in countless homes and public buildings, including hospitals and schools.
It can take between 10 and 50 years for symptoms to appear. Over time, asbestos diseases have affected different generations of people, including those who mined, shipped and worked with it in the past. Many of our buildings still contain asbestos – and people can still be exposed to it without realising, while they are renovating or when materials are illegally dumped after buildings are demolished.
Other dust diseases on the rise
The rising rate of these diseases can be linked to several factors:
- As technology has developed, larger and faster machines are generating more dust than ever before – particularly in mining, manufacturing and construction.
- Many new products contain silica, which is dangerous when it’s cut, drilled or ground up and then inhaled in dust.
- Some workplaces are not taking proper safety measures or providing enough training to protect people who are working regularly in dusty environments. The increase in casual and contract work in the mining, manufacturing and construction industries adds to these problems.
- Better government regulation is needed to guarantee the safety of workers.
Crystalline silica is found in the earth’s crust – it’s in stone, rock, sand, gravel, granite, concrete and clay, as well as in fabricated stone products used for benchtops in kitchens and bathrooms.
If you inhale silica regularly in dust that’s produced by cutting, grinding or drilling with power tools, silica particles scar the lungs, leading to respiratory failure and early death. There is no cure for silicosis other than a lung transplant – and even then, long-term survival isn’t guaranteed. Silica can also cause kidney disease and autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma.
Compared to asbestos, if you’re exposed to disturbed silica particles you can start to feel symptoms faster (within 10 years in some cases) – people are becoming ill in their 20s and 30s.
Coal workers' pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung, is caused by inhaling coal dust over a long period. There is no cure for black lung and it can lead to death.
Black lung disease is on the rise because large machinery in mines cuts through coal and rock faster and generates more dust. Black lung and silicosis often appear together, because silica is also present in rocks where coal seams are found. The disease used to take decades to develop, but black lung is now occurring after as little as five years and affecting younger miners than ever before [vii].
Compensation for dust disease sufferers
If you are diagnosed with a dust disease, you may be entitled to compensation under:
- Common law, if you lodge a claim within three years of diagnosis
- Insurance policies
- Workers’ Compensation schemes
- Product liability claims.
What to do if you have symptoms
If you think you have been exposed to harmful dust and you have symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, chest tightness or pain, you should immediately:
- See your doctor
- Seek legal advice.
Act quickly if you’ve been diagnosed with a dust disease
It’s important that you get advice as soon as possible if you’re diagnosed with a dust-related disease, so that your rights are protected and you can get the best possible outcome for your claims. It will also allow time for any investigations to be completed and help you to make informed decisions about exercising your rights.
Slater and Gordon’s dust disease team
I’m proud to be part of a highly experienced, passionate team helping victims of occupational disease get the fair compensation they deserve. We’ve supported many clients throughout complex cases of respiratory disease and occupational dust-borne illness. In these difficult cases we bring patience, persistence and solid expertise to help people from all walks of life.
We’re leaders in this field:
- For decades, we have acted for thousands of people suffering from dust-related illnesses. We resolved the first negligence claims for asbestos sufferers in the 1970s and conducted the first successful asbestos-related cancer common law claim in Australia in 1984.
- We were the first firm in Australia to set up national databases to capture the details of where and how people have been exposed to asbestos and silica.
We have a team in New South Wales that specialises in black lung disease.
How we’ll help you
If you’ve been diagnosed with a dust disease, we’ll meet with you free of charge to:
- Get a detailed history of your work and your health records
- Help you understand what you’re entitled to.
And if there’s a case, we’ll:
- Investigate how you were exposed, with the help of our databases
- Fight for compensation for you with our No Win, No Fee commitment
- Make the process simple for you by visiting you at home or in hospital.
If you are suffering from a dust disease, your wellbeing is paramount, and you don’t have time to waste. We’ll do everything possible to limit stress and resolve your case speedily (some claims can be resolved within a month; my fastest was within five days).
We can work quickly because we have extensive knowledge of the legal and medical aspects of these diseases, and our asbestos and silicosis databases are enormously helpful in terms of investigating your circumstances and finding witnesses to support your case.
We’re here to help. Our dedicated lawyers have extensive experience with dust disease compensation. If you think you may be suffering from a dust-related illness, contact us online or by calling 1800 555 777.