Silicosis, a lung disease caused by breathing silica dust, has aggressively re-emerged in Australia’s stonemasonry industry.
Hundreds of stonemasons have been diagnosed with silicosis in recent years, with the popularity of artificial stone in housing partly responsible. According to WorkCover & icare since 2016, 238 silicosis cases in Queensland and 133 in Victoria have been diagnosed, with a further 156 identified in New South Wales in the last three financial years.
"Receiving a silicosis diagnosis is devastating,” says Kathryn Townsend of Shine Lawyers Dust Disease practice. "Although there is no cure, there are some measures you can take to reduce the impact this disease has on you and your family."
What is silicosis?
Silicosis is a chronic, deadly lung disease that is caused by the inhalation of silica particles. Silica is a common mineral found in many building materials, such as sandstone, marble, slate and granite. When these materials are cut, ground or polished, tiny respirable silica particles may be inhaled deep into the lungs, causing scarring and fibroids. These fibroids make it increasingly difficult for a sufferer to breathe.
The disease has re-emerged in epidemic numbers, partly due to the popularity of artificial stone being used in kitchens and bathrooms, in new builds and renovations. Engineered stone is created using resin embedded with silica, the levels of which are much higher than traditional stone benchtops. When this stone is cut and polished, it releases very high levels of respirable silica.
The current epidemic is affecting very young men in the prime of their working life. In late 2018, the Queensland Government banned dry cutting of engineered stone in an attempt to curb the crisis and other states like Victoria have followed.
By law, employers are required to protect their workers from hazardous silica dust. Water suppression systems and technology are vital to extinguish silica-filled dust which is otherwise created when stone is cut dry. A safe work area that isolates the hazard through enclosures and exhaust ventilation is also important. Employers are also required to provide protective clothing and equipment to workers, as well as up-to-date training on how to use protective equipment effectively.
When symptoms of silicosis appear, such as breathlessness and coughing, the disease is often, unfortunately advanced. If it’s caught in the early stages and a sufferer then avoids further exposure to silica, the disease may progress more slowly. Sometimes there might be no symptoms but a chest x-ray may reveal the presence of silicosis.
If you are working or have worked with engineered stone, you may have been exposed to high levels of silica. It is vital that you visit a medical expert such as a respiratory physician, so they can perform a lung function test and chest x-ray as part of their medical evaluation. You should also access free health screening programs which have been rolled out for stonemasons in some states, including Queensland and Victoria.
What happens if I’m diagnosed with silicosis?
Your respiratory doctor will be able to give you the best advice when it comes to living with silicosis. If your condition should advance from silicosis to progressive massive fibrosis then, depending on the severity of the decline in the condition, lung transplant surgery is an option that your doctor may discuss and advise you of.
Some of the most important things to do include:
- Avoid further exposure to silica and other dusty environments
- Don’t smoke or if you do, seek advice about quitting as soon as possible
- Get vaccinated against influenza and other diseases that affect the respiratory system
- Look after your general health and wellbeing
There has been some fast-developing advancement in the research and use of antifibrotic treatment. It may be worth investigating if any trials are commencing that you could take part in.
Emotional and financial support is vital following a silicosis diagnosis. Finding others who may be going through similar situations and who can offer reassurance is often helpful for sufferers. Ask your doctor or visit The Lung Foundation for a support group near you. Depending on your condition your ability to work may be affected – a legal claim for compensation could provide you and your family financial support.
If you suspect you’ve been exposed to silicosis dust or experience symptoms of a dust disease, you should document your exposure using our free silicosis register and see your doctor.
If you are diagnosed with silicosis, you should seek legal advice as soon as reasonable, as strict time limits apply to claims.
The Dust Disease team at Shine Lawyers has a history of fighting for workers with silicosis. In 2020, the team successfully argued with insurers the link between lupus and silica dust in an Australia-first decision.
Shine Lawyers and our Dust Disease experts will support your claim for compensation and where possible speed up the legal process. You can learn more about the compensation process on our Dust Disease Compensation page.
Insights from Roger Singh, specialist Dust Diseases lawyer
Despite the known dangers of silica in the workplace, many workers are still being exposed. Shine Lawyers National Litigation Specialist Roger Singh acts for a dozen silicosis clients nationwide and has been campaigning for the past several year for stricter workplace regulations to keep workers safe.
He has proposed a strict licensing regime for engineered stone businesses and has written to the federal government, and all relevant ministers in each state and territory, urging a coordinated national approach to safety around silicosis exposure. He has also made submissions to the National Dust Diseases Task Force, set up by the Federal Government to develop a national approach for the prevention and management of occupational dust diseases in Australia. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help the stonemasons who have already developed silicosis. Roger believes that these stonemasons deserve compensation.
“When an employer breaches its duty of care to a worker the worker has very strong claim to recover compensation, arising from the employer’s breach, for pain and suffering and associated losses, including loss of earnings into future years, because many of these workers cannot return to work again because of their injury,” he says.
Recently there has been news around a law firm launching a class action, however, Roger, with his years of specialised experience in dust disease compensation including silicosis, advocates that an individual claim is a better option.
“The best option for injured workers in silicosis cases is to bring individual claims where the compensation will be a lot higher and will be obtained a lot quicker than in a class action,” Roger explains. “An individual claim is tailored for a particular person’s suffering and losses and if their life expectancy is reduced because of their silicosis then a claim can be fast-tracked for an early resolution which is not the case with a class action.”
Roger with his experience in this field of work strongly cautions workers against registering or involving themselves in a class action which is a misguided approach to this type of claim.
Shine Lawyers are silicosis claim experts
Shine Lawyers are experts in silicosis compensation. Our Dust Disease team has a proven record when it comes to supporting clients successfully claim compensation and access their legal entitlements.
If you or a loved one is suffering from silicosis or another dust-related disease, contact our Dust Disease team online to find out if you have a claim and how we may assist you access the financial support you need.
Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: April 19, 2021.