Following the diagnosis of silicosis affecting over a hundred workers in Queensland, the extent of this epidemic in WA will unknown until a recently announced program of workplace inspections by WorkSafe is complete. Two months ago, there were three publicly confirmed and recent diagnoses. However, sources have confirmed a further two such cases in WA. As Federal and State Government work safety representatives meet today to consider a new work heathy and safety standard for exposure to silica dust, UnionsWA has called for that standard to be set at a world best, not a mediocre level. Exposure to silica dust is commonly caused through working kitchen benchtops and in mining and studies have established a fatal link with the incidence of lung cancer, silicosis and fibrosis. The Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia has also provided comment on its health monitoring services and expertise currently available to sufferers.
Owen Whittle, Assistant Secretary UnionsWA said:
“It is horrifying that five working West Australians have had their health badly harmed after a diagnosis of silicosis.
“The fear of more serious consequences is a burden for them, their families and co-workers.
“Sadly, these are early days as we must wait out a health monitoring program of affected workers and workplaces which has only just begun.
“In WA more than elsewhere, we know from asbestosis that we must learn the lessons of the past.
“Decisive and urgent action is needed.
“The current workplace exposure level for silica dust was set in 1983.
“That standard is horribly out of date for several key reasons.
“The first major factor is the relatively recent and massive growth in the use of cheaper artificial granite for counter or kitchen tops.
“Artificial stone contains around 90% of the dangerous component, silica, about twice as natural granite.
"Over the decades since the current standard was set, many medical research studies have established a fatal link between exposure to silica dusts and the incidence of lung cancer, silicosis and fibrosis.
“The current standard for workplace exposure to silica dust over an average of eight hours is set at 0.1 mg per cubic metre.
“A sign of how dangerous the existing standard is can be determined by a report that will be considered today by members of SafeWork Australia, including Federal and State Government work safety representatives and which recommends, quote:
“A TWA [Time Weighted Average] of 0.02 mg/m3 is recommended to protect for fibrosis and silicosis, and consequently minimise the risk of lung cancer, in workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica at the workplace.”
"That is setting a standard at 20% of the existing dangerous exposure level.
“Unions are emphatic that this new standard must be adopted and that work and safety agencies monitor compliance as well as provision of all necessary safe practices such as wet cutting to reduce airborne silica dust, good ventilation in areas where working, wearing of respiration protective equipment, among other practices.”
Melita Markey on behalf of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia said:
“The Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia has assisted workers with silicosis from the West Australian coal and gold mining industry for more than 35 years and these have generally been in decline.
“However, this year we were saddened to discover a new generation of workers affected by the stone masonry industry, that is kitchen benchtops and sand blasting.
“It is sometimes the case that during winter cold or flu symptoms persist longer than normal and may be an early warning of an underlying lung related condition.
“Those who have been exposed to silica dust that may have symptoms are encouraged to seek medical attention or a screening appointment at the Society.
“Several silicosis diagnoses have manifested this year through our routine health checks with our onsite screening service for workers and the community exposed to asbestos or silica dust.
“The meeting today between Federal and State work safety representatives is of the utmost importance to initiate new standards and prevent further exposure to silica products such as artificial and imported stone.”
For a Screening appointment with the Asbestos Diseases Society please call our office 1800 646 690
“Draft Evaluation Report Respirable Crystalline Silica” (see top right-hand corner to download and view here):
Recent media report regarding 100 silicosis diagnoses in Queensland (online here).
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.
WorkSafe have confirmed six cases of silicosis in WA in the past year, most from the stone benchtop industry and one from the mining sector. Unions fear further cases will be identified in coming months as health monitoring is rolled out in WA workplaces.
“Terry” – not his real name as he currently works with granite and engineered stone and fears discrimination through his employment - has worked with granite and engineered stone countertops since 2007 both in factory settings and on-site installation roles. 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. Terry is currently on the public waiting list to see a specialist to fully assess his condition.
“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.”