UnionsWA has today welcomed an important announcement by WA Industrial Relations Minister Bill Johnston that significantly reduces the workplace safety standard for exposure to silica and coal dust.
Owen Whittle, Assistant Secretary UnionsWA said:
“The lowering of the silica and coal dust exposure safety standards is welcomed and will reduce a number of work-related cancers, but particularly it will reduce the alarming numbers of silicosis cases from the artificial stone industry.
“This new 0.05mg/3 safety standard for exposure to silica is a significant step in the right direction to ensure that workers are better protected.
“This new standard for silica exposure is half the previous level.
“However, there is no safe level of exposure to silica.
“Unions argued for a far lower standard of 0.02mg/3, which was not adopted by Safe Work Australia nor by WA.
“A new standard will only be meaningful if it is enforced.
“In recent years the McGowan Government has increased the number of WorkSafe Inspectors however more can still be done to make our workplaces safer.
“Working people who fear current levels of exposure in their workplace are encouraged to report cases to their union or WorkSafe.
“It is also very important that proper PPE and other safety equipment such as wet cutting equipment are provided by employers.
“The decision via Safe Work Australia for a new lower national standard was taken in December 2019 and while the new standard is welcome, it is disappointing that is has taken so long for this to be implemented in WA.”
When worked, granite and engineered/manufactured/artificial stone commonly used for countertops produces fine particles of silica that if inhaled are a known causal factor for a range of industrial diseases including lung cancer and silicosis, a lung condition that is the cause of breathing difficulties. Silicosis is often not diagnosed for some years after exposure to silica. Engineered, artificial or manufactured stone, a more affordable alternative to granite, typically contains around 90% silica while natural granite contains about half that amount.
For those working granite and engineered stone safety measure include “wet” cutting of product to reduce airborne silica dust, good ventilation in areas where working, wearing of respiration protective equipment, among other practices.
In Queensland over 100 workers have been diagnosed with Silicosis.
“Terry” – not his real name - has worked with granite and engineered stone countertops since 2007 both in factory settings and on-site installation roles in Perth. Terry is in his 40’s, married and has two school aged children.
In 2019 he underwent a CT scan that identified large nodules in his lung, which can be a symptom of silicosis and he was diagnosed with Silica in 2020. He has had to cease employment working with granite and engineered stone and is undertaking retraining.
“There are a lot of cowboys in the housing construction and renovation industry.
”I’ve seen guys that have tried to seek medical attention and they get sacked.
“In my last job the boss handed me a paper face mask as protection when either a cartage face mask or an oxygenated suit are required when exposed to silica dust.
“Doing on-site installations when the measurements are wrong, benchtops are not sent back to be recut, it’s dry cut on-site with little or no ventilation.
“I’d leave those jobs covered in dust and of course the home or businesses covered as well.
“Now that I know about these risks, I worry for mates I’ve worked with and customers as well.
“Dry cutting is happening every day on site, and customers need to be aware that if you want to change your sink or hot plate with a bigger one in years to come it will be dry cut in your home unless you remove the whole kitchen top.”