The return of Silicosis
2nd Aug 2018
At a time when attention on safe work practices is at an all-time high, an unwelcome epidemic is re-emerging to haunt Australia’s stonemasons – the return of Silicosis. This incurable lung disease is caused by exposure to silica dust, and involves irreversible scarring and stiffening of the lungs.
Considered the ‘new asbestos crisis’, a large number of Silicosis cases have arisen over the past decade as a result of the increased use of artificial stone, which contains high amounts of silica dust (crystalline silica).
Silicosis caused by exposure to dust from engineered stone is progressive and aggressive. Most people with this disease face double lung transplantation as the only treatment option. The cohort is also tragically young, with stonemasons in their 20s and 30s developing progressive and debilitating Silicosis. In many cases the disease is fatal.
Artificial or ‘engineered’ stone is a popular building product that is used to fabricate kitchen and bathroom benchtops. This product first came onto the market approximately 15 years ago, as a cheaper alternative to granite and marble. Today there are more suppliers of artificial stone in Australia than ever before, and stonemasons are in demand. Artificial stone such as caesarstone, quantum quartz and essastone is the material of choice across many Australian homes. The stone contains up to 90% silica content, hence why exposure is so high.
Silicosis was more common during the 1940s to 1960s, however as awareness of the disease increased and emphasis on safe work practices grew the number of Silicosis cases reduced, to the point that the illness had all but disappeared by the early 1990s. Unfortunately, over the past few years there has been a rise in Silicosis cases; in excess of 60 new Silicosis compensation claims were lodged between 2006 and 2016, the majority lodged by tradesmen who have worked in stonemasonry.
At a time when dangerous work practices should be on the decline, it is alarming to see such a spike in Silicosis cases. Employers in this industry should know the dangers of engineered stone, and they have an obligation to implement practices and procedures to ensure that employees are not at risk of developing life-threatening conditions like Silicosis.
Australian manufacturers will continue to use silica-based products like artificial stone so long as the product is cheap and profitable. However, employers need not forget that they are under a legal duty to eliminate or reduce risks to the health and safety of all employees so far as is ‘reasonably practicable’. Employers can use a number of techniques to minimise the risk of their workers contracting Silicosis: implementing safe cutting techniques such as ‘wet cutting’, supplying adequate personal protective equipment, and ensuring the exhaust systems in workshops are adequate. Rather than focusing on their profits and minimising their cost base, manufacturers of artificial stone must prioritise the health and safety of their employees.
In today’s day and age workplace safety is of paramount importance, and the health of Australian workers should not be put at risk by the increasing demand for artificial stone. Employers must turn their minds to the issues that stem from working with artificial stone so that more lives are not lost from Silicosis.
Luke Perilli was admitted to practice in March 2016 and has since practised in personal injuries litigation. He previously worked at Shine Lawyers between February 2016 and 2018, practising in Workers’ Compensation, Public Liability and Motor Vehicle Accident claims. Since February 2018 he has been employed by Maurice Blackburn and works in the asbestos diseases/dust team, located in the Melbourne office. He assists individuals suffering asbestos and dust-related illnesses in compensation claims. His practice includes common law claims and WorkCover claims.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).