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Silicosis on the rise: The hidden dangers of engineered stone

Australian tradies are suffering through a resurgence of the deadly – and preventable – dust-related disease “Silicosis”. The rise in the disease has been attributed to a seemingly innocent source: stone benchtops that are found in many domestic kitchens and bathrooms.

The link between engineered stone and silicosis

Reconstituted or ‘engineered’ stone products are highly sought after for modern kitchens and bathrooms due to their low price point and high durability. These products contain high levels of crystalline silica, which, when cut, ground, drilled or polished, exposes workers to dangerous levels of silica dust.

“Silicosis” is a permanent and untreatable lung disease that is caused by breathing in silica dust particles over an extended period of time. Silica is a common mineral found in both natural and engineered stone. However engineered stone typically has a much higher concentration of silica dust (95%) compared with its natural counterparts which contain 5-50%, making it a more dangerous material to work with particularly when safe work practices aren’t in place.

As well as during fabrication and installation of engineered stone countertops, Safe Work Australia lists below some other work activities that may expose you to silica dust:

  • excavation, earthmoving and drilling plant operations;
  • clay and stone processing machine operations;
  • paving and surfacing;
  • mining, quarrying and mineral ore treating processes;
  • tunnelling;
  • construction labouring activities;
  • brick, concrete or stone cutting; especially using dry methods;
  • abrasive blasting;
  • foundry casting;
  • angle grinding, jackhammering and chiselling of concrete or masonry;
  • hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil wells, and;
  • pottery making.

Engineered stone cutting and unsafe working conditions

Appallingly, the common thread linking most modern cases of silicosis is an unsafe workplace. In many of the reported cases, the individual’s employer had failed to adhere to basic protective measures, such as:

  • wet cutting;
  • adequate ventilation systems;
  • specialised equipment;
  • the provision of fit-tested respiratory masks;
  • dust monitoring;
  • and access to work clothing that remains at work and is laundered at work.

Are you at risk of developing silicosis?

If you work with stone benches, or in any other industry that exposes you to materials containing silica, you may be at risk of developing silicosis.

Silicosis is preventable, so it is imperative that your workplace educates you on the dangers of silica dust and provides appropriate protective measures to all employees at risk. If you work in an industry where you are likely to be exposed to silica dust you may be entitled to free regular medical check-ups.

The importance of regular lung health checks

Your employer should arrange regular medical check-ups for all employees working with engineered stone products to ensure symptoms are detected as early as possible.

You can access lung health checks in your state through the following:

  • QLD – WorkCover Queensland is providing stonemasons, mine and quarry workers with free lung health checks. According to WorkSafe Queensland, if you work for a stone benchtop employer, your employer is obligated to pay for health screenings and monitoring for you.
  • WAThe WA Silicosis Screening Program is offering a free screening check for people who have worked with artificial stone, undertaken stone benchtop grinding or cutting.
  • NSWicare Lung Screen is a mobile respiratory testing service that your employer can book your workforce into. Unfortunately, this is not currently a free service however your employer has a responsibility to provide this if you are working with silica.
  • VIC - WorkSafe VIC is currently offering a free health assessment to all past and present workers in the stonemason industry to identify any crystalline silica-related disease.

Shine Lawyers - silicosis compensation experts

If you believe you may have been exposed to silica, have been diagnosed with silicosis, or simply want more information, please contact Shine Lawyers today.

Our team of dust disease specialists can assess your circumstances and provide you with obligation-free advice about any potential entitlements to compensation.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: October 23, 2020.

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