Gold Coast stonemason, Anthony White, became the first Queensland worker from the engineered stone industry to die from the lung disease silicosis last week, amid what experts are calling a “nationwide epidemic.”
Queensland Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace extended her sympathies to the family and friends of the 36 year old, praising him for his “incredible bravery” in publicly exposing the dangers of silica dust.
In late 2018 the Queensland Government issued an urgent warning to the stone bench-top industry after 22 workers’ compensation claims for silicosis were filed in a three week period (see related article).
And earlier this year, an audit of Queensland’s manufacturing stone industry revealed 98 workers had contracted silicosis — of which 15 were terminal— with more than 550 workplace breaches in a four month period. Across Queensland, 799 stonemasons were referred to have lung testing.
Silicosis is an aggressive form of pneumoconiosis, a debilitating respiratory disease, which is often fatal. The progressive and irreversible disease is contracted when tiny particles of silica dust are breathed in and settles in the lungs.
Dr Graeme Edwards, a Brisbane physician who has tested hundreds of stone workers as part of the audit, told the ABC that he predicts the health crisis will become worse than asbestosis.
“We’re talking about a major epidemic that we don’t fully appreciate right now – it’s absolutely in a league of its own.”
“From a clinician’s perspective, this is worse than asbestos, because asbestos affects people at the end of their working life and into their retirement, where this particular disease is affecting young workers, people with dependent children, with wives and a whole working life expectation before them.”
“The social and psychological impact is so much greater than what we have traditionally seen with any of the dust-related diseases.”
Dr Edwards also said doctors were struggling to cope with the increasing number of workers that are being referred for treatment.
“This is going to have a major impact on the public health system. We’re already taxing the capacity of my colleagues in respiratory medicine to even deal with the issues of today for these people who we’re diagnosing at the moment.”
Grace said that Mr White had an accepted WorkCover claim and WorkCover had reached out to his family to offer condolences and support.
In February, Safe Work Australia recommended significantly reducing exposure limits for silica and coal dust as part of its ongoing overhaul of workplace airborne contaminants (see related article).
In order to protect from fibrosis and silicosis, and the risk of lung cancer, SWA are recommending that respirable crystalline silica be cut from a TWA of 0.1mg per cubic metre to 0.02mg. Other countries, including the U.K. and the U.S.A, are considering similar exposure limit reductions.
Who is exposed?
The Cancer Council says approximately 587,000 Australian workers were exposed to silica dust while on the job in 2011. Of these, 5,758 are estimated to develop lung cancer in the future as a result of that exposure.
You may be exposed to silica dust if your work involves:
- breaking, crushing, grinding, or milling silica-containing material
- using or fitting some plastic composite products
- moving earth e.g. excavating, mining, quarrying, tilling or tunnelling
- sand blasting
- sand casting
- paving, surfacing, and cement finishing
- mineral-ore treating processes
- laying, maintaining, or replacing ballast
- road construction
- manufacture of glass, ceramics, concrete, tile, coke, metals, steel metal casting, or mineral products
- drilling, cutting, chiselling or sanding silica-containing material
- handling, mixing or shovelling dry silica-containing material
For more information from the Cancer Council, including a summary of control measures, visit here.