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$vuetify.icons.faPhone1300 650 620

Silica: Exposure in the spotlight

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The re-emerging trend of workers contracting silica-related diseases continues to be a key workplace health and safety priority.

Workplace health and safety regulators across Australia continue to introduce safety standards and regulations for silica dust.

Silica dust can cause silicosis and other diseases if inhaled.  This may occur when working with materials that contain crystalline silica.  For example, by cutting, grinding or polishing, stone, concrete, tiles and other materials. 

The re-emergence of silicosis has been driven by the popularity of engineered stone benchtop material.  Hence, control of exposure to dust in the fabrication and installation of stone benchtops continues to be the main focus.  But other building materials that contain crystalline silica are also under the spotlight.

What are State and Territory Governments doing?

Most workplace health and safety regulators have set benchmarks to protect workers exposed to silica dust.  They are taking action and are providing enhanced support for individuals affected by silicosis.  Most have conducted campaigns to improve education and awareness of the risks and how to stay safe.

Workplace health and safety regulators have audited stone benchtop workshops to enforce compliance with health and safety requirements.    

Regulators have made (or are making) changes to better protect workers from hazardous exposures to silica dust.  This includes new laws, codes of practice, safety alerts and guides on how to control risks.  For example, Queensland made a code of practice for managing risks associated with engineered stone.  Victoria produced a similar compliance code.  Queensland is working on a code of practice for managing silica in construction work. 
States, such as NSW, Victoria and Queensland have passed laws banning the uncontrolled dry cutting of engineered stone.   
Victoria intends to introduce the most wide-ranging set of silica regulations in the world by the end of the year.  

Victorian regulatory proposals include:

- A licensing scheme for work with engineered stone.
- Supplies must not supply engineered stone to a person who does not hold the required license. 
- Suppliers to keep certain records of supply of engineered stone,  
- Mandatory identification and assessment of activities involving crystalline silica.
- Requirements for written silica hazard control statements.
- Requirements to inform employees and job applicants about silica risks and control measures.

National developments

Much work has been undertaken nation-wide to address risks of exposure to silica dust. 

Safe Work Australia* (SWA) launched its Clean Air Clear Lungs campaign.  This includes national guidance on how to prevent exposure to silica dust.

SWA undertook a review of the Workplace Exposure Standard (WES) for respirable crystalline silica (RCS).  This led to a reduced WES of 0.05 mg/m3.  A further review is under consideration.

A range of other SWA activities currently under development include:
- A model code of practice for managing silica dust when working with engineered stone.
- Model regulations prohibiting uncontrolled dry cutting of engineered stone.

Licensing of engineered stone work and laws for other tasks capable of generating silica dust are also under consideration.

The Workplace Exposure Standard is the airborne concentration of RCS above which workers must not be exposed.  The WES is a time-weighted average over an eight-hour working day and a five-day working week.

National Dust Disease Taskforce

The National Dust Disease Taskforce appointed by the Minister for Health and Aged Care released its final report last June. 

The Taskforce made recommendations designed to have an immediate impact on improving worker health and safety for activities that generate silica dust, including engineered stone.  Notable recommendations included:

1. Strengthen work health and safety measures to ensure workers are protected from exposure to respirable crystalline silica and its devastating consequences. 

2. Take immediate action to ensure that businesses working with engineered stone demonstrate that they: 
- Effectively and continuously manage the risks for workers associated with working with engineered stone; 
- Regularly monitor and record silica dust levels in the workplace, and have these results validated by an appropriately trained occupational hygienist; and 
- Conduct regular health monitoring of all workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica. 

3. Greater priority be given to work health and safety monitoring and compliance activities where workers are at risk of exposure to respirable crystalline silica. Specific consideration should be given to: 

- Development and introduction of an industry funding model to support ongoing regulatory activities; and 
- Increased frequency and robustness of workplace inspections and better promotion of actions taken by WHS regulators. 

4. Urgently conduct a regulatory impact analysis (RIA) to identify and decide implementation of measures that provide the highest level of protection to workers from the risks associated with respirable crystalline silica generating activities in the engineered stone industry. The RIA must consider: 

- A licensing scheme or equivalent to restrict access to the product to those businesses that can demonstrate the ability to effectively manage the risks; and 
- Strengthening the health monitoring requirements include contemporary methodologies such as low dose high resolution computerised tomography (HRCT) scans, and to cover all workers at risk of exposure to respirable crystalline silica. 

5. Commence the processes required to implement a full ban on the importation of some or all engineered stone products if, by July 2024: 
- There is no measurable and acceptable improvement in regulatory compliance rates for the engineered stone sector as reported by jurisdictions; and 
- Evidence indicates preventative measures are not effectively protecting those working with engineered stone from silicosis and silica-associated diseases. 

The Taskforce report will encourage governments to progress further reforms.

HIA will continue to monitor and respond to proposals in this space. This will be important to ensure reforms are proportional and practical and thoroughly assessed for their impacts. 

* Safe Work Australia is the national body responsible for developing model workplace health and safety laws that jurisdictions can adopt.