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HIACF helping tradies breathe easier

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As silicosis continues to be a health crisis affecting our industry, HIACF has donated funds to help support the development of life-changing diagnostic techniques and treatments.

Gabrielle Chariton

Author

Contributor to Housing

It’s no exaggeration to describe silicosis as a health crisis within the housing industry. Debilitating, incurable and sometimes deadly, this occupational lung disease is caused by inhaling fine particles of silica dust when cutting, drilling, grinding or polishing certain types of stone, rock, masonry, engineered stone and tile.

Researchers at Curtin University estimate that 584,050 Australian workers in the construction, mining, farming and transport industries are currently exposed to silica dust, and between 83,090 and 103,860 of these are expected to develop silicosis over their lifetime. Around 10,000 cases will progress into lung cancers. But silicosis isn’t just a ‘future’ problem, it’s happening now: a WorkCover Queensland screening of 1000 stonemasons exposed to crystalline silica dust found that almost one in six had silicosis; and one in 30 had progressive massive fibrosis – a more advanced, and potentially fatal, form of the disease.

These numbers are simply too large to ignore. Without intervention, this terrifying disease will have a devastating impact on workers across the housing industry. That’s why, in June 2023, the HIA Charitable Foundation (HIACF) donated $50,000 to support the Tradie Heath Institute, which backs vital, cutting-edge medical research into preventing and treating silicosis and other occupational lung diseases.

HIACF has an 11-year history of stepping up to support causes that matter to the residential building industry. ‘Our aim is to improve the health and wellbeing of HIA members, their families, and the wider community, and we do this by providing financial donations to best-practice research organisations,’ says Pino Monaco, Chair of HIACF. ‘The Tradie Health Institute aligns with the HIACF ethos, and we are incredibly proud to be able provide some funding to advance their important, life-changing research.’

Introducing the Tradie Health Institute

The Tradie Health Institute is a trailblazing initiative dedicated to improving and saving the lives of tradies impacted by occupational lung diseases, including silicosis. The Tradie Health Institute is a national collaboration of the public health sector, universities, doctors and scientists, and industry. It is driven by one of the top medical research charities in the country, The Common Good, an initiative of The Prince Charles Hospital Foundation in Brisbane.
Promoting the incorporation of both research and treatment facilities, the Tradie Health Institute is taking a cohesive, co-ordinated ‘go hard or go home’ approach in the fight against silicosis, and it is already delivering real, tangible change and progress.

‘The institute is emerging as one of the world’s leading research initiatives for trade-related illness,’ says Tradie Health Executive, Wayne Thomson. ‘While treatment has traditionally focused on prevention, rehabilitation, and managing chronic conditions, we are working collectively to find ways to detect the disease earlier and improve outcomes for those diagnosed with silicosis.’

The Tradie Health Institute is taking a cohesive, co-ordinated ‘go hard or go home’ approach in the fight against silicosis.

Image courtesy of the Tradie Health Institute

An industry-wide risk

Crystalline silica is a natural mineral and a key component of soil, sand and granite. Its prevalence means that workers right across the construction industry are vulnerable to exposure to silica dust. High-risk activities include:

  • cutting brick, tiles, concrete or stone (particularly using dry methods)
  • earthmoving and excavation works
  • angle grinding, drilling, cutting, jackhammering or chiselling of concrete or masonry
  • fabrication and installation of marble, granite and engineered stone benchtops.

The facts on silicosis

Silicosis occurs when silica dust particles, which are a hundred times smaller than a grain of sand, are inhaled and settle inside the lungs. Their presence sends the immune system into overdrive, causing inflammation and scarring (fibrosis) and ultimately, impacting lung function and leading to difficulties breathing.
There are three types of silicosis – acute, accelerated and chronic. ‘The level of exposure, how well dust mitigation measures and PPE are used, and length of time a person is exposed are important factors which influence the risk of contracting silicosis,’ Wayne Thomson says. ‘For some, the symptoms may be mild, and for others it can have devastating impacts on the quality and length of their life.’

Early detection

There is currently no cure for silicosis. However, as with many diseases, the prognosis vastly improves with early detection. ‘We’ve seen silicosis mostly in young people, some as young as 25 years old, so it’s critical to help them and help them fast in a race against the clock. Once scarring occurs it may be too late as there are currently no known treatments and the condition can progress even with no further exposure,’ says Thoracic and Transplant Physician and Professor of Respiratory Medicine, Dr Dan Chambers.

Workers right across the construction industry are vulnerable to exposure to silica dust.

Image courtesy of the Tradie Health Institute

The problem is that during its early stages, silicosis can be asymptomatic and undetectable via traditional screening methods such as x-ray. That’s why one of Tradie Health’s key research priorities is developing new screening techniques for earlier detection. These include:

  • DNA markers – genetic testing to see why some people are more at risk of developing silicosis than others
  • exhaled breath detection
  • new diagnostic techniques to quantify the amount of silica in the lungs.

Hope for those living with silicosis

But what about those who already have the incurable lung disease? The Tradie Health Institute is helping to fund the trialling of a potential new treatment for mild cases of silicosis, called a ‘whole lung lavage’. This procedure involves using saline to flush silica dust from the lungs and could be the first step in fighting silicosis. So far, over 20 Queenslanders have undergone lung lavage. The HIACF donation will go towards progressing this potentially game-changing treatment. With better screening techniques and new treatments, the vision of the Tradie Health Institute is to eliminate silicosis and other work-related illnesses.

To treat more advanced cases of silicosis, such as progressive massive fibrosis, the institute also supports a drug discovery program focused on identifying drug targets and new treatments. Work in this exciting area is ongoing.

A positive partnership

With HIACF and the Tradie Health Institute presenting a united front in combating silicosis, HIACF’s Chair Pino Monaco acknowledges the importance of this area of research. ‘This disease affects so many people in our industry, and we’re proud to be able to contribute to this essential, and potentially life-saving medical research,’ he says. ‘This is really about members helping members – because the work of HIACF wouldn’t be possible without the fundraising support and generosity of the wider HIA membership base.’

Tradie Health Executive Wayne Thomson adds: ‘Tradie Health and HIACF have a common goal – the safety of tradies. Thanks to HIACF’s support, we can continue our life-changing work that offers hope for tradies and their families … your $50,000 funding could help us to re-write history and find the holy grail – a treatment.’

First published on 16 October 2023

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