What is Silicosis?

Silicosis has been in the spotlight for some time now, with awareness having developed around the risk of contracting this occupational lung disease as a result of breathing in crystalline silica dust. Silica is a common mineral found in a variety of natural stone, sand, concrete and glass and engineered stone.

It was a common disease in the 1940’s to 60’s when workers in construction and demolition were exposed to the substance without proper protection or controls. Over time, with awareness and better safety practices, the disease subsided, however, the provenance has accelerated in recent years due to silica dust exposure from engineered stone.

Sources state that ‘Silicosis is a long term lung disease caused by inhaling unsafe levels of silica dust, usually over many years. The fine dust that contains silica can scar the lungs. It is the scarring that is known as ‘silicosis’. Silicosis can lead to breathing problems, a serious lung condition called “Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF)” or lung cancer. There is no cure for silicosis and it can be fatal.”

There are 3 common types of silicosis:

  • Chronic silicosis: exposure to silica dust for more than 10 years
  • Accelerated silicosis: exposure to silica dust for 3-10 years
  • Acute silicosis: develops within weeks or months of exposure to silica dust.

 

Symptoms of silicosis

In the early stages, there may be no symptoms. When symptoms arise, they may include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath after exercising
  • TirednesHarsh, dry cough

As the condition gets worse, symptoms also increase in severity.

 

How might silicosis occur?

Crystalline Silica dust particles can be found in quartz, sand, stone, soil, granite, brick, cement, grout, mortar, bitumen and engineered stone products. Inhalation of the silica dust creates a risk of developing silicosis.

The body can naturally expel some dust that is breathed in, but when there is high levels of dust exposure over years, it can build up in the lungs, reducing the ability for your body to get rid of the dust.

Exposure to silica dust is higher when working in a job where there is a requirement to grind, crush, drill, break or mill material containing silica. Some examples include:

  •  Angle grinding, jack hammering and chiselling of concrete or masonry
  • Brick, concrete or stone cutting
  • Clay and stone processing machine operations
  • Constructing and installing composite stone countertops
  • Demolition work
  • Excavation, earth moving and drilling plant operations
  • Foundry casting
  • Glass manufacturing
  • Hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil wells
  • Mineral ore treating processes
  • Paving and surfacing
  • Pottery making
  • Road construction
  • Sand blasting
  • Tunnelling.

 

Laws and Guidelines around Silica Dust

Due to the worrying increase in silicosis recently from the prevalence of engineered stone and lack of safety protocols and guidelines to accompany it, there has been a significant push from governments and safety academics and professionals to have silica dust exposure more closely regulated and controlled.

Aside from the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act and WHS Regulations which include standing requirements for employers and employees relating to safety at work, there are silica risk specific actions being put in place.

Some state WHS Acts have been amended to include new provisions for controlling the risk of silica in workplaces, such as additional monitoring and training requirements.

 

SafeWork Australia’s 2023-2033 WHS Strategy

One of the strategy’s goals is “reduced worker fatalities, injuries and illnesses”. Targets under this goal relevant to silicosis are:

  •   To reduce the incidence of work-related respiratory disease by 20% and;
  •   no new cases of accelerated silicosis by 2033

Relevant action is to increase awareness of PCBUs about their duty of care to protect workers from exposure to harmful substances.

 

Code of Practice

Managing the risks of respirable crystalline silica from engineered stone in the workplace. It provides clear guidance for employers on how they can protect their workers from breathing in silica dust, including how to safely work with engineered stone, lung screening requirements, correct use of PPE and Safe Work Method Statements for work on construction sites.

 This Code is in force in all states and territories (except SA, NT & ACT).

National Code: SafeWork Australia CoP

State Guidance:

 

How can we avoid exposure to silica dust?

There is now a nationally agreed reduced workplace exposure limit (or WEL) for respirable crystalline silica to an 8 hour time weighted average of 0.05mg/m3 (SafeWork Australia – Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants). Employers must ensure that exposure is eliminated or minimised wherever possible, including ensuring the airborne contaminants do not exceed the prescribed limit.

Identifying controls should be done through a risk management approach, including completion of a risk assessment in consultation with workers and other stakeholders or specialists.

Where elimination or substitution is not possible, there are controls that must be applied. Potential measures follow the hierarchy of control, ranked from highest level of protection to lowest:

    • Engineering:
      •  Dust suppression
      •  Apply water suppression systems to reduce dust generation
      • Dust extraction (local exhaust ventilation systems)
      • Isolate / contain areas where dust is generated
    • Administrative
      • Housekeeping
      • Policies and procedures
      • Training
      • Reduce time exposed to dust
      • Health monitoring
    • Personal protective Equipment (PPE)
      • Provide PPE including respiratory protective equipment (RPE)

 

Summary

Silicosis and its associated illnesses represent distressing and preventable consequences to workplace activities. As the reduction of silicosis instances takes centre stage within the SafeWork Strategy, and legislative modifications have been implemented alongside rigorous campaigns and inspections by state safety regulators we anticipate a significant decline in silicosis cases over the forthcoming 5-10 years.

It is imperative for businesses to adopt a proactive stance in identifying and controlling potential silica exposure risks within their workplaces, as well as any other locations where their workers carry out their duties.

Awareness and education are critical in the control of silica exposure.

 

About Employment Innovations

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Disclaimer

The information provided in these blog articles is general in nature and is not intended to substitute for professional advice. If you are unsure about how this information applies to your specific situation we recommend you contact Employment Innovations for advice.

 

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