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The Dangers of Silica Dust, What you Should Know


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One of the major health hazards on many construction sites is the one you often cannot see—crystalline silica dust. The extremely fine particles are released when granites, sand, bricks, cement, and other materials release dust due to activities such as cutting, grinding and blasting.

What has health authorities, workplace safety organisations and others concerned is the particles are so small they cannot be seen with the naked eye. However, when inhaled, they can lodge deep in lung tissue.

This can lead to degenerative and sometimes fatal diseases, such as silicosis, and contribute to the likelihood of developing lung cancer.

Rise in Silicosis Cases 

The recent and sudden spike in the number of young workers presenting with silicosis has raised the alarm bells.

The majority had been working in small businesses fabricating stone benchtops for kitchens and bathrooms, according to Dr Ryan Hoy, who presented on the topic at the Asian Pacific Society of Respirology Congress. Dr Hoy also said he was aware of seven new cases diagnosed in the past five years in NSW, Queensland and Victoria caused by working with artificial stone.

 The Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand issued a warning to anyone working with dust, including workers involved mining and tunnelling, or those exposed to dust generated by working with artificial or engineered stone.

Overall, occupational lung diseases including silicosis and “miners lung” are making a comeback, said Professor Allan Glanville, President of the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand. 

“This resurgence in occupational lung diseases should have clinicians, tradespeople and industry on alert."

“This resurgence in occupational lung diseases should have clinicians, tradespeople and industry on alert. These are diseases we thought had almost been eradicated, but thanks to exposure to high levels of dust and poor control measures they’re resurfacing,” Professor Glanville said.

“To make matters worse, the disease progression is much faster than seen before, and the people affected—much younger. We need a national response."

The Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union issued a national health alert about silica dust in April this year, following a determination by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which saw Crystalline Silica classified as a Group 1 Carcinogenic.

In addition to the risks of lung health, researchers are finding evidence there could be a link between crystalline silica exposure and renal (kidney) disease. What’s more, even low levels of exposure can cause chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive airways disease.

Jobs With Exposure to Silica Dust

Safe Work Australia and the Cancer Council have identified a wide range of construction and demolition jobs that can result in dangerous levels of crystalline silica dust. They include brick cutting; angle grinding on concrete or masonry; concrete cutting; jack hammering and chiselling of concrete, masonry and stone; scabbling; tile cutting; drilling of concrete or brick; excavation and clearing up of dust and debris following work.

Site audits carried out by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland between 2009 and 2012 also found crystalline silica dust exposure could also be experienced by workers in concrete plants, precast concrete block production and installation workers, and on-site construction workers generally.

Of 20 sites surveyed across a wide range of construction and construction-related industries, WHSQ found one in five workers were affected over an average nine-hour working day. Non-compliance concerned the levels of silica dust to which workers were exposed.

Exposure Standard Twice as High as in the US

The Australia standard for exposure is 100 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic metre of air. This is twice as high as the US standard set in 2017 of 50 micrograms/m3, with 25micrograms/m3 set as the threshold at which remedial action must be taken.

Law firm Slater and Gordon, which had led successful legal actions for compensation for workers affected by asbestos, launched a National Silicosis Register in December last year.

The register for those affected by workplace silica dust exposure also aims to collect data on the impacts of silica dust on workers and increase the knowledge of how workers become exposed.

Senior Slater and Gordon dust diseases lawyer Claire Setches said that unlike asbestos-related diseases, which can take decades to become symptomatic, workers exposed to crystalline silica can start present with symptoms as soon as one to two years after exposure. Severe progressive silicosis can develop in just three years.

Only Known Cure is Lung Transplant  

“Unfortunately, there are almost no available medical therapies and, even more concerning, little data about the number of people who have been exposed to the dust,” Ms Setches said. “Symptoms include phlegm build up, chest pain and breathing difficulties with more acute cases presenting with fever, weight loss and fatigue.”

It is not only tradies at risk—those carrying out home DIY projects are also potentially exposing themselves and their families to the dust.

It is not only tradies at risk—those carrying out home DIY projects are also potentially exposing themselves and their families to the dust.

The Cancer Council raised the alarm for the DIY sector late last year.

"Silica is surprisingly common—it's found in stone, rock, gravel, and clay, as well as bricks, tiles, concrete and some plastic materials," Terry Slevin from Cancer Council Australia said.

He said around 600,000 people working in mines, farms, construction and demolition jobs are exposed to the dust, which is linked to more than 230 cases of lung cancer each year.

"It's so small you can't see it—but if you breathe it in, it can lead to lung cancer in some cases,” Mr Slevin said. “We continually see workers cutting granite kitchen benchtops, tiles or bricks, or demolishing materials without proper protection in place, which is a very real concern.”

Mr Slevin said DIY warriors should also follow guidelines to reduce the risk of exposure.

How to Protect Yourself

Measures recommended for both workplaces and DIY projects include ensuring proper ventilation. Personal respiratory equipment should also be used when working in areas that may expose a person to silica dust.

The CFMEU recommends that building and excavation workers in proximity to processes causing silica dust may also be affected, particularly if exposure is prolonged. Thus, all equipment used for cutting, grinding, drilling, sweeping and other similar tasks should be fitted with extraction devices to eliminate the dust. 

Where dust extraction is not possible, wet methods should be used. For many jobs, some form of respiratory protection will also be needed.

Where dust extraction is not possible, wet methods should be used. For many jobs, some form of respiratory protection will also be needed.

National OHS regulations now require all employers to provide health surveillance to workers exposed to crystalline silica. The surveillance includes chest X-rays, respiratory function tests, and records of exposure.

The medical examination should be done at least every five years, and any relevant findings reported to the employer so the workplace control measures can be assessed.

In April, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland launched a workplace audit blitz to target the risks posed by the deadly dust.

The WHSQ inspectors set out to target larger workplaces initially to identify any contraventions of the specific workplace safety regulations around silica. Those requirements have been designed to protect workers. They also lay out a suite of best practice approaches.

They include the use of suitable engineering controls to manage respirable crystalline silica risks, such as using water suppression or dust extraction devices. Where a worksite may have an atmosphere contaminated with the dust, a safe work method statement specific to respirable crystalline silica should be prepared.

WSHQ has also released a comprehensive set of best practice resources for identifying the risks and managing workplace exposure—access them here.

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