There has been increased media attention in recent months about the risks posed by silica dust as the number of workers, particularly stonemasons, being diagnosed with silicosis continues to rise.
Silicosis is an aggressive and incurable lung disease which results from breathing in crystalline silica (sand) dust. The disease has been recognised as occurring in workers exposed to dust for hundreds of years – usually workers who had prolonged exposure to mineral dust, such as while working in mines. However, the current wave is worrying because much younger workers, often with only short-term exposure, are now developing silicosis and other silica dust diseases.
What is silica?
Crystalline silica is a naturally occurring component of many minerals and composite materials such as sand, granite, quartz and concrete. It is present in most rocks and soils. There are crystalline and non-crystalline forms of silica. It is exposure to crystalline silica dust that causes health risks.
Why is inhaling silica dust dangerous?
When products containing crystalline silica are cut, crushed, polished or worked with in similar ways, they release very fine dust particles into the air which are usually so small as to be invisible. These are then inhaled and may become lodged deep within the lungs where they can cause serious damage to your lungs and health.
However, not everyone exposed to silica dust will develop an illness. Rather, your risk increases with the length and severity of exposure. It is particularly significant that different products contain different amounts of silica. Granite contains anywhere from 25-50% silica, while sandstone contains around 70%.
The dangers of engineered stone
Historically, workers most at risk from silicosis worked in mines, or excavation. Most workers in these industries now take precautions that limit the risks.
However, over the last ten years the growth of engineered stone products has led to a class of workers who are being exposed to silica dust and developing silicosis and other silica related diseases. Engineered stone is increasingly popular as a cheaper alternative to granite for kitchen and bathroom benchtops. Engineered stone products are primarily composed of quartz, a mineral extremely high in silica, bonded with resin. They are composed of around 90% or more silica and as such, workers who produce or fit engineered stone products may be exposed to extremely high levels of crystalline silica dust. The trend for engineered stone appears to be behind the recent rise in the number of cases of silicosis among younger workers.
How much exposure is dangerous?
It has long been an accepted part of industrial medicine that all dust is dangerous, and the best practice is to avoid or minimise inhalation of any dust
Although, there is no safe level of exposure to silica, most people diagnosed with silica related diseases have usually working in a dusty environment for extended periods.
An exception to this is short periods of exposure to very high silica levels of dust which can cause acute silicosis that develops within weeks or months and is incurable. Those working with engineered stone are at particular risk.
How can exposure be prevented?
Because employers have a legal duty to provide a safe work environment, they should make efforts to eliminate exposure to silica health hazards where possible. Where working with silica products is necessary, employers should provide workers with respiratory protection for silica dust and take other silica dust control measures to keep the level of exposure as low as reasonably possible.
Silica dust monitoring equipment is critical for employers to be able to monitor if the standard is exceeded and to know when there may be a risk to an employee’s health. No worker should be working in an environment where there are silica dust hazards without dust masks rated for silica. In addition to a silica dust mask, workers should be provided with clothing that does not catch dust and that is safely washed. Depending on the industry, there are a range of other safety measures that can, and should, be taken.
What illnesses does crystalline silica exposure cause?
Exposure to crystalline silica dust can cause chronic bronchitis and emphysema, among other lung diseases. Silica dust exposure symptoms include shortness of breath, severe cough, chest pain and fatigue.
There is no such thing as silica cancer. However, the presence of silica dust in the lungs can greatly increase the risk of developing lung cancer. Lung cancer from silica dust is also more likely if the person has been a smoker.
The most common disease caused by exposure to silica dust is silicosis.
What is silicosis?
Silicosis is a disease marked by inflammation and scarring of the lungs. Silicosis is generally a progressive condition, which can lead to the development of other silica dust lung diseases and may lead to death. Silicosis is classified into three broad types based on severity and onset:
- Acute silicosis: develops after short-term exposure to high levels of silica dust and leads to the rapid onset of symptoms and potential health complications
- Accelerated silicosis: develops within 5-10 years of first exposure to silica dust
- Chronic silicosis: develops after long-term exposure to lower levels of silica dust, usually appearing 10-30 years after first exposure
All forms of silicosis can develop into complicated silicosis – that is silicosis complicated by some other lung disease, most commonly progressive massive fibrosis (PMF). PMF occurs when the small nodules of scar tissue which normally characterise silicosis grow together and become masses greater than 1cm in size. PMF is associated with more severe symptoms and impairment of respiratory function and can accelerate the fatality of the disease.
What are my legal options if I have been exposed to silica dust?
Because of the increased demand for engineered stone benchtops, silica exposure lawsuits have been on the rise. If you are diagnosed with silicosis or another silica disease, then you may have rights to both statutory compensation (with the Dust Diseases Authority) and a claim at common law.
In NSW claims for silicosis and other dust related diseases are brought in the Dust Diseases Tribunal. To be successful you will need to prove that you have contracted silicosis or a silica sand related cancer during the course of your employment or on work sites owned and/or controlled by the defendant and that the defendant failed to take adequate precautions to prevent your exposure to silica dust. If you are successful then you will receive lump sum compensation to compensate you for pain and suffering, loss of life expectancy, out-of-pocket expenses, the need for care and assistance and, if you can no longer work, economic loss.
You will also have rights to receive compensation from the Dust Diseases Authority – a statutory body of the NSW Government that provides compensation in the form of a weekly pension where a person can no longer work and payment of medical and other expenses if a person has contracted a dust disease such as silicosis because of exposure to dust while employed in NSW.
An application to the Dust Diseases Authority is an administrative process and requires you to undergo a medical examination and provide a work history. Your work history and the results of the medical examination are considered by the Medical Panel consisting of 3 respiratory specialists who determine whether you are suffering from silicosis and, if so, your percentage level of disability. This will determine the amount of pension that is awarded to you.
All persons exposed to dust in NSW are eligible to make an application to the Dust Diseases Authority and undergo a free medical examination. Once you are registered with the Dust Diseases Authority then you will be regularly recalled to undergo a medical examination.
Segelov Taylor specialises in acting for persons suffering from dust diseases including silicosis. Tanya Segelov has represented persons suffering from silicosis for over 20 years.
Segelov Taylor acts in all silicosis matters on a ‘no win no fee’ basis. This means you will only pay our costs if you are successful in obtaining compensation. Contact our office by phone (02) 8880 0500 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.