Safe Work Australia (SWA) has published a 32-page guide designed to help PCBUs understand and make decisions about protecting their workers from exposure to silica dust.
Working with silica and silica-containing products provides information about controlling the risks of exposure to silica dust when working with silica and products containing silica, like composite stone products.
The guide warns employers against relying solely on one control measure and instead recommends a combination of different control measures to eliminate or minimise generating silica dust.
“If you rely solely on one control measure, such as PPE, there may be a significant risk to your worker’s health and you may be breaching WHS laws. It has been shown that solely relying on PPE does not adequately protect your workers.”
What is silicosis?
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.
And silica is commonplace in many workplace environments – it is found in sand, stone, concrete and mortar, and is used to make a variety of products including composite stone used to fabricate kitchen and bathroom benchtops, bricks, tiles and some plastics. When workers cut, crush, drill, polish, saw or grind products that contain silica, dust particles are generated.
Law firm Slater and Gordon announced in June that it was preparing a national class action against the manufacturers of popular kitchen stone bench-tops after the products led to thousands of stonemasons contracting silicosis (see related article).
The effects of silica dust exposure are also being felt in other developed countries – unions in the U.S. are currently demanding a new Standard on silica dust exposure, as the prevalence of black lung disease among the nation’s mining workers continues to grow (see related article).
Dr Graeme Edwards, a Brisbane physician who tested hundreds of stone workers as part of a Queensland audit, predicts the silicosis 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.”