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Exposing a National Crisis: Dust Disease in Australia

3 minute read

Toxic exposure, silica and dust diseases

Back in the early 2000s, a pure marble benchtop would set you back several thousand dollars. So, when ‘engineered stone’ hit the market, for less than half the price, suddenly everyone wanted a new kitchen or bathroom benchtop. With the industry booming, hundreds of young men signed up to become a stonemason – cutting, polishing, and installing these man-made benchtops. They were easier to source, looked and felt exactly like marble, were much cheaper, and were more scratch resistant than real marble and granite. However, below the surface of these benchtops lay a toxic substance that when ingested or inhaled, could be fatal and young stonemasons had no idea what they were cutting into. ‘Silica’ is a common mineral found in both natural and engineered stone. However engineered stone is made up of 95% ‘crystalline silica’, which if inhaled or ingested repeatedly can cause silicosis, an irreversible lung disease. In late 2015, it was Roger Singh who first noticed the connection between silicosis and young people. Through his pioneering research, he discovered that in its massive fibrosis stage – where mass-like lesions begin to form on the inside of the lungs – silicosis has a shorter period of delay. This meant it wasn’t just the older, retired Stonemasons getting sick, it was the young ones too.

“I have been disparaged big-time by a lot of Australian doctors, but there are a lot of people dying from exposure to silica dust. We’re not doing this frivolously. Now that we’ve managed to get the first claims related to an autoimmune disease accepted and successfully resolved, the experts are beginning to change their tunes.”

Roger Singh

For more than 25 years, Roger’s relentless lobbying has generated landmark outcomes in the dust disease space. Through the power of mentorship, he has formed a formidable force with Kathryn Townsend, who is carrying on the plight to seek compensation for clients suffering from exposure to toxic substances. They may not be doctors or medical scientists, but Roger and Kathryn were the first in Australia to successfully prove the connection between young people and silicosis in a courtroom. They are now at the forefront, leading the conversation, campaigning, and advocating for victims of dust disease and toxic dust exposure. Roger is well-known for representing ‘Zorko Zabic’, a 74-year-old man who had developed mesothelioma 40 years after working in a Northern Territory alumina refinery in the 1970s. It was this case that went on to shape ground-breaking legislation to assist asbestos disease sufferers. In 1997, new laws were passed, removing the right for workers to bring a court-based claim to recover fair and proper compensation. Refusing to give up, Roger took Zorko’s case to the High Court of Australia, where he succeeded in enabling cases like Zorko’s to be brought in the courts and taken seriously.

Over the years, Roger and Kathryn have worked tirelessly to drive awareness around toxic dust exposure and remain determined to hold employers accountable for keeping their workers safe. They provide expert advice to state governments, ministers and unions and have contributed to new state regulations and licensing of silica-related industries. They are now breaking new ground, connecting silica dust to other heartbreaking autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma. When a client walks through Shine’s door, they can be certain that the Dust team will leave no stone unturned to prove their exposure and ensure they get the compensation they deserve. Throughout his career, Roger has paved the way for change for victims of toxic dust exposure. He has built a legacy that he’s passed on to passionate people like Kathryn to ensure our clients will have a constant pillar of strength in the very complex and confusing world of dust disease litigation. Not afraid to step up to a challenge or push the boundaries; for people like Roger and Kathryn, no case or client is too big or too hard.

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