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What you need to know about silicosis in the building industry

Silica containing materials have been thrown into the spotlight as a recent fatality highlights the dangers of exposure.


Simon Croft

Over the past year, a number of Australian workers have been diagnosed with silicosis – a serious, irreversible lung disease caused by prolonged exposure to airborne dust that contains respirable crystalline silica. 

While it’s not a new disease, the disturbing increase in the number of workers contracting silicosis has led to an unprecedented number of actions by governments and industry to protect workers from further exposure to this hazardous dust. It has also led to at least one law firm preparing a national class action against artificial stone benchtop manufacturers.

How you can be exposed

The hazardous nature of the dust is due to its crystalline silica content. Crystalline silica is a mineral commonly present as quartz in rocks, sand and soil. Construction materials made up of any of these ingredients can contain some crystalline silica, though the actual content will vary depending on the material. Artificial stone (also known as engineered or reconstituted stone) contains a higher proportion of crystalline silica – typically over 90 per cent – compared to other stones or construction materials. Hazardous dust is generated by cutting, grinding or polishing the material, and when this is done in the dry state, high levels of airborne dust are generated.

The recent spike in silicosis cases is reported to have occurred predominantly in workers involved in artificial stone benchtop manufacture. In March this year, a 36-year-old Queensland worker died from silicosis, allegedly contracted from working with artificial stone. 

What is being done to protect workers?

 State and territory governments are now looking closely at this hazard, while Australian health and safety authorities are taking action to reduce exposure and prevent further cases of silicosis. The risk of exposure to the dust can be reduced considerably by avoiding dry processes that generate airborne dust. Some jurisdictions have banned uncontrolled dry cutting of materials that contain crystalline silica. Others are following suit. 

Most Australian workplace health and safety authorities have prepared safety alerts and guides on how to minimise airborne dust, mostly available online. Queensland is developing a code of practice specific to the manufacture and installation of stone benchtops, while Victoria is also about to develop a compliance code and Western Australia has developed a checklist for working with stone benchtops. Safe Work Australia is currently developing a national safety guide for working with these products. 

Up to now, the main focus has been on the fabrication of stone benchtops because this is where most cases of silicosis have surfaced. Most Australian workplace health and safety regulators have audited stone benchtop fabrication facilities, and have taken enforcement action where appropriate when dust control measures are found to be inadequate. Most regulators are also scrutinising the installation of stone benchtops onsite. Some have also started to check other construction activities that work with products containing crystalline silica, such concrete and autoclaved aerated concrete panels. 

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A major artificial stone manufacturer has also taken the initiative to implement an accreditation scheme for fabricators they supply artificial stone to, requiring ongoing audits and safety compliance to be demonstrated by the fabricators.

Know your obligations

Wet methods are preferred to reduce airborne dust, and are being enforced by regulators. Where it’s not reasonably practical to use a wet method, the use of an efficient on-tool dust extraction and collection system fitted with HEPA filtration is expected, along with respiratory protective equipment. If safety inspectors visit workplaces and identify that dust is not being adequately controlled they will issue enforcement notices that must be complied with. Failure to comply can result in a prosecution.  

However, effective dust control methods are not the only matters being enforced. The proper handling and disposal of dust and contaminated slurry, the wearing of respiratory protective equipment that has been ‘fit tested’ to the worker, as well as air monitoring and health monitoring (that is, regular medicals) of workers, are also being imposed. 

Industry’s response to silicosis

HIA and HIA members are taking positive steps to reduce hazardous dust levels to help prevent workers developing the disease. HIA circulated a member information sheet last year to raise awareness about the risks of working with products that contain crystalline silica and how workers can be protected. 

A major artificial stone manufacturer has also taken the initiative to implement an accreditation scheme for fabricators they supply artificial stone to. The scheme will require ongoing audits and safety compliance to be demonstrated by the fabricators. Supply will be removed from fabricators not accredited to the new scheme. 

A review of the Workplace Exposure Standard (WES) for respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is also underway. The WES is the airborne concentration of RCS above which workers must not be exposed.  It’s a time-weighted average over an eight-hour working day and a five-day working week that allows excursions above the WES value – provided they are compensated for by periods of exposure below that value. In Australia, the WES is mandated under health and safety laws in all jurisdictions. 

A considered approach is needed

HIA provided a substantial submission to a draft evaluation report released by Safe Work Australia for public comment earlier this year that recommended the current WES of 0.1 mg/m3 be reduced down to 0.02 mg/m3. HIA has concerns the proposed change will impact specific activities that have had no health problems reported, which could prove unnecessarily burdensome.

For example, the proposed change could trigger health or air monitoring or other requirements that would not definitively guarantee greater safety. HIA believes these impacts should be fully evaluated and considered, and any reduction to the WES should be specifically targeted to the products and activities that have caused the current problem.

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