Silicosis Rising Amongst Tradies

According to Safe Work Australia, as well as the most recent Census, tradies make up 30% of the Australian workforce. Recent statistics suggest that Australia’s tradie population has seen “an explosion of cases” of silicosis, the oldest occupational lung disease on record.

This alarming revelation has led to calls for occupational reform, as more than 275,000 Australians are now at risk of cancer and lung disease caused by silicosis. In this article, we will discuss the situation; including what silicosis is, how it has become so prevalent as of late, and what people can do if they are at risk.

What is Silicosis?

Silicosis is a lung disease caused by the inhalation of fine silica dust particles. Silica is a mineral found in many types of rocks, sand, and soil, as well as in products such as concrete, brick, and glass. When silica particles are inhaled, they can cause scarring and inflammation in the lungs, which can lead to breathing difficulties, coughing, and other respiratory problems.

This condition typically develops gradually over time, and symptoms may not appear for several years or even decades after exposure to silica dust. There are three main types of silicosis: chronic, accelerated, and acute. Chronic silicosis is the most common form and develops after 10 or more years of exposure to silica dust, while acute silicosis can develop after only a few weeks or months of exposure to high levels of silica dust.

Why have silicosis cases surged amongst Australian tradies?

These recent cases of silicosis have been attributed to engineered stone (a.k.a. quartz or composite stone). This is a type of building material made from a mixture of natural quartz crystals, resin, and pigments. The quartz crystals are crushed into small pieces and mixed with a resin binder and pigments to create a durable and uniform surface material.

Engineered stone is a popular alternative to natural stone, such as granite or marble, due to its consistent appearance, high durability, and resistance to scratches, stains, and heat. It is often used in kitchen and bathroom countertops, flooring, and other interior applications.

Unfortunately, engineered stone also contains up to 95% crystalline silica, the dust of which is highly toxic. When inhaled in large quantities, it can cause a host of deadly illnesses, including silicosis, auto-immune diseases, lung cancer, kidney disease and pulmonary infections.

Similarly to asbestos, another harmful substance that was used in construction until its ban in the early 2000s, engineered stone is harmless once it has been installed in the household. However, during construction, it can be incredibly dangerous due to its friability. If engineered stone is not cut while wet by workers wearing full protective gear, it can release silica dust into the air, where it poses an intense exposure risk.

What are the symptoms of silicosis?

The symptoms of silicosis may vary depending on the severity and duration of the exposure to silica dust. However, some common symptoms of silicosis include:

  • A persistent cough, sometimes with phlegm.
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath during physical activity.
  • Pain or discomfort in the chest area.
  • Feeling tired or weak, even after getting enough rest.
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss, and sometimes fever.
  • A higher susceptibility to respiratory infections, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia.

In advanced cases of silicosis, people may experience more severe symptoms, such as cyanosis (blue lips or fingertips), swelling of the legs, and heart failure.

Why are Australian tradies at risk?

Tradies are at a higher risk of developing silicosis because many trades involve working with materials that contain silica, such as concrete, brick, stone, and sand. When these materials are cut, drilled, or ground, they can create fine silica dust particles that can be inhaled into the lungs.

Tradies who work in industries such as construction, mining, and manufacturing are particularly at risk of silica exposure. Jobs that involve cutting, grinding, or drilling materials that contain silica, such as concrete or stone cutting, can generate large amounts of dust that can be inhaled. In addition, working in confined spaces or poorly ventilated areas can increase the risk of silica exposure.

Because the introduction of engineered stone as a construction material in Australia has coincided with a record breaking number of government led building projects, this has led to a surge in exposure cases as well as over 100,000 silicosis diagnoses.

What has been the response to this rise in silicosis cases among construction workers?

Both unions and workers are making a widespread effort to call for the end of importing and manufacturing of engineered stone in the construction of household kitchens and bathrooms.

According to the Australian Workers Union (AWU), thousands of workers are regularly exposed to the toxic dust during tunnelling, and construction companies “make it difficult” for unions to bring dust monitors on site to regularly monitor workers’ exposure.

As a result, they are calling for similar regulations to those that are implemented to keep other contaminants such as asbestos out of workplaces, from a ban on engineered stone in construction, as well as laws that compel companies to regularly monitor their air in accordance with rules made by Safework NSW.

Additionally, the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) has backed the NSW Labor Party’s support for a ban on engineered stone to be delivered no later than July 2024.

Finally, the Lung Foundation Australia has called for a public consultation on the National Silicosis Prevention Strategy (NSPS) and accompanying National Action Plan (NAP).

What can construction businesses do to prevent further exposure amongst their employees?

Preventing further exposure to silica dust among tradies is crucial to reducing the incidence of silicosis. Here are some steps that businesses can take to prevent further exposure:

Providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Tradies need to be provided with appropriate PPE; such as respirators, dust masks, eye protection, and hearing protection, to minimise the amount of silica dust inhaled.

Implementing On-Site Engineering Controls

Using engineering controls such as dust suppression systems, wet-cutting methods, and local exhaust ventilation can help reduce the amount of dust generated during work activities.

Encouraging and Enforcing Safe Work Practices

Tradespeople should be adequately briefed and constantly reinforced regarding safe work practices such as minimising dust generation, not eating or drinking near silica dust sources, and keeping the work area clean.

Providing Adequate Training

Employers should provide adequate training and education to their workers on the dangers of silica exposure and how to prevent exposure.

Constant Health Monitoring

Employers need to provide their workers with avenues for regular medical checks. Regular medical check-ups can help detect silicosis early and prevent the progression of the disease.

Regulatory Compliance

Employers should comply with local and national regulations regarding silica exposure limits and provide a safe working environment for their employees.

By implementing these measures, construction companies can prevent further exposure to silica dust among tradies and reduce the incidence of silicosis.

What should I do if I am affected by symptoms of silicosis?

If you have been exposed to silica dust, it is important to do the following;

  • Seek medical attention, even if you do not have any symptoms. A doctor can evaluate your condition and determine if you need any further tests or treatment.
  • If you believe you have been exposed to silica dust at work, inform your employer immediately. Your employer is obligated to provide a safe working environment and should take steps to prevent further exposure.
  • Regular medical check-ups can help detect silicosis early and prevent the progression of the disease.

If your symptoms are serious, you may have a serious respiratory condition that requires treatment. If that is the case, consult a respiratory specialist such as Manse Medical, so you can get the medical help you need.

Book your appointment online by selecting your preferred clinic and choose from the list of our available respiratory specialists.