Silicosis is a group of diseases to describe fibrosis, scarring and nodules in the lungs caused by breathing in silica dust. Symptoms include coughing, phlegm build up, chest pain and breathing difficulties with more serious cases presenting with fever, weight loss and fatigue. Silicosis can be progressive and life shortening. In some cases, breathing in silica dust can cause silica induced cancer, silica induced scleroderma (which affects the connective tissues and causes a hardening of the skin), silica induced tuberculosis, mixed dust pneumoconiosis, kidney disease and emphysema. Silicosis was common in Australia during the 1940s to 1960s amongst construction workers, but waned due to improved safe work practices.
However, in the past decade we have seen the re-emergence of silicosis.
Who's at risk?
Stonemasons cutting kitchen and bathroom benchtops, construction workers and those in the mining industry have the highest risk of exposure to silica particles.
While engineered stone benchtops are very popular, the prevalence of engineered stone benches has come at a big cost to people’s lives. Engineered stone contains up to 97% silica and when cut releases respirable crystalline silica dust into the air. Engineered stone’s high silica content means there is a high risk of workers developing breathing problems when breathing in this dust.
How did the government respond?
By 2018 the increase of silicosis arising from the Engineered Stone Industry was becoming prevalent. By December 2018 Safe Work Australia agreed to a review of the Workplace Exposure Standard for respirable silica. From 1 July 2020, laws were changed to halve the workplace exposure standard from 0.1 mg/m3 to 0.05 mg/m3 over 8 hours. However, experts don’t know what the safe level of exposure to respirable crystalline silica dust is so more needed to be done.
The National Dust Diseases Taskforce (“the Taskforce”) was established in July 2019 by the Commonwealth Government to inform on a national approach to the prevention, early identification, control and management of occupational dust diseases in Australia.
The Taskforce published its final report on 14 July 2021 which made 7 key recommendations for urgent action and reform.
The recommendations include:
- Strengthening work health and safety measures.
- Urgently conducting a regulatory impact analysis.
- Developing national guidance to identify people at risk and to improve the quality, frequency, and coverage of health screening.
- Better support to workers affected with the diseases.
- Better support for medical, health and other professionals to improve diagnosis and management of workers.
- Establishing a cross jurisdictional governance mechanism.
- Introducing a licensing scheme.
Slater and Gordon support the key recommendations, which highlight the need for manufacturers and employers in the Engineered Stone Industry to take greater responsibility for the risks and consequence associated with working with silica.
Will engineered stone be banned?
The manufacturers of engineered stone products owe a duty to people working with their products to ensure that they are safe and that the risks they present are accompanied by appropriate warnings.
The report stated that, if by July 2024 there is no measurable and acceptable improvement in worker safety standards when working with these products, a full ban should be implemented on the importation of some or all engineered stone products.
In this way the Engineered Stone Industry is on notice, either clean up or be cleared out.
Impact of a silicosis diagnosis
A silicosis diagnosis can have serious impacts on all aspects of a person’s life and those of their families. For these workers the current recommendations and reform is too little too late.
After a person is diagnosed with silicosis, they are told they can no longer work in a dusty environment. This can be devastating as it may require them to retrain, search for a new job which may result in a lower income or for some, wind up or sell their business.
Depending on the severity of their disease, many people are also experiencing disabilities from their silicosis and a shortened life. They can be burdened by financial strain, mounting medical issues, and for some the prospect of requiring a lung transplant if they are even eligible.
While it will never compensate for the incredible toll this disease takes, diagnosed workers and their families may be entitled to compensation through superannuation, insurance policies, claims for damages and workers’ compensation schemes.
Where to from here?
The report says reform is urgently required and it’s required now. The key recommendations highlighted above include strengthening Work Health and Safety Laws, as well as providing better support to those workers affected by silicosis.
The report recommended more analysis is needed to identify and implement measures that provide the highest level of protection to workers as well increased work health and safety monitoring and compliance activities including more workplace inspections.
We are hopeful urgent action will now be taken in this industry by strengthening work health and safe measures and new legislation to protect our workers.
If you’ve been impacted by silicosis, you can get in touch with our team at Slater and Gordon, we’ll listen to your story and help you assess whether you may have entitlements under a Workers’ Compensation scheme, Public Liability or through superannuation insurance policies.
The contents of this blog post are considered accurate as at the date of publication. However the applicable laws may be subject to change, thereby affecting the accuracy of the article. The information contained in this blog post is of a general nature only and is not specific to anyone’s personal circumstances. Please seek legal advice before acting on any of the information contained in this post.