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Sick workers prepare lawsuits over toxic dust exposure

07 February 2021

Toxic exposure, silica and dust diseases

Seven former factory workers are each planning to file lawsuits after being diagnosed with a range of diseases linked to toxic dust exposure at two silica milling factories in Victoria, formerly owned by global minerals company Unimin. 

The group alleges their ex-employer was negligent by failing to provide a safe workplace at the factories in Lang Lang and Dandenong in Melbourne’s southeast suburbs. 

Kevin Weekes, 52, was employed at the factories for almost 28 years and performed a variety of roles including driving a forklift and bagging sand, gravel, and silica. 

“You could always see the silica dust in the air but we weren’t warned about the health risks despite that being something all workers needed to know,” he said. 

In 2019, Kevin was diagnosed with silicosis, disease-causing scarring, swelling and fluid build-up in the lungs that interferes with a person’s ability to breathe and can advance to progressive massive fibrosis, with life-threatening consequences. 

“I’ll never forget coming home after the diagnosis and sharing the news with my wife, Debra, and our two daughters,” Kevin said. 

“The scary thing is I don’t know how much time I have left and I’ve been told to get my affairs in order.” 

Kevin said he was given inappropriate PPE, including inadequate masks, throughout his career and offered second-hand equipment. 

“An international silica dust expert who visited the site recommended the use of airflow helmets but I only got mine after my diagnosis and as far as I’m concerned that’s too little, too late.” 

While awareness of silicosis is gradually increasing across the mining, construction, engineering and stonemasonry industries, Roger Singh from Shine Lawyers said many workers don’t realise they’re also at risk of developing a range of autoimmune diseases. 

“Sadly, we’re often the first to explain to workers the connection between silica dust exposure and autoimmune diseases like scleroderma, Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus,” said Mr Singh, who leads the firm’s Dust & Diseases Litigation Practice. 

"Getting WorkSafe Victoria to accept these links hasn't been easy but we refused to give up on our clients and have had success in securing for them no-fault compensation for silicosis and autoimmune diseases.”

Mr Singh said Shine Lawyers had proven a causal connection between silica dust exposure and autoimmune diseases like scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis for multiple clients and is now fighting to have lupus recognised as a work-related injury on behalf of Dianne Adams, 58.

“There’s more work to do and we will fight tooth and nail to have her lupus recognised as a work-related injury by the statutory insurer as it was caused by the same dust,” he said. 

Mr Singh said the next step in the legal process is to investigate the potential to bring lawsuits against the current owners of the factories on behalf of the seven workers to recover compensation for pain and suffering in addition to statutory payments. 

"What began with one brave worker speaking out has snowballed with seven former workers preparing to take court action against,” he said. 

"This employer has been derelict in its duty by allowing so many of its employees to be exposed to hazardous silica dust with devastating impacts for them and their families. 

“Employers can't continue to turn a blind eye to the health and safety of hard-working people who are left to take the brunt of their neglectful and reckless conduct.” 

The National Dust Disease Taskforce, established by the federal health minister Greg Hunt in 2019, is due to hand down its final report this June.

Mr Singh said it was critical the report endorsed long overdue reforms to workplace health and safety regulations. 

"We need to see rigorous regulation of all silica dust producing industries, including a significant reduction in exposure levels within workplaces, and penalties against employers who do the wrong thing.” 

To learn more about silicosis and how we can assist, please click here.

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