There is no cure for silicosis, but there are preventative measures that can eradicate the problem. It develops after exposure to silica dust and the duration and intensity of the exposure will influence how severe the illness is.
The risk impacts many industries; when work creates silica dust, its presence in the air means it can be inhaled by workers. Silicosis creates a host of health issues, including respiratory problems and can develop into lung cancer.
Understanding Silica Dust: Sources and Hazards
Silica dust exposure impacts various industries, from mining and construction to engineering, manufacturing, and farming. The risk of exposure increases when materials are being broken down, whether through cutting and grilling or grinding and polishing. It is found in quartz, brick, gravel, clay, rock, and stone.
The disease varies in severity, but every type impacts the respiratory system. Silicosis patients experience coughing, chest tightness, and breathing problems. The sooner treatment is sought, the better.
Australian Statistics and Prevalence of Silicosis
Around 600,000 Australian workers are exposed to silica dust annually and the Cancer Council believes 1% will develop lung cancer. There has been a steady increase in silicosis in Australia, which is likely due to how slowly it develops. Research suggests cases of the disease could soon rise to over 100,000.
It’s a significant health issue and while treatable, it’s not curable. The government has been proactive in putting controls in place to prevent it. Additionally, health practitioners have been encouraged to familiarise themselves with the symptoms and diagnosis journey to ensure treatment is swift.
As far as occupational diseases in Australia, silicosis is one of the oldest. Its resurgence today has been heavily linked to the rise in artificial stone benchtop businesses.
Regulations and Workplace Safety Standards in Australia
Regulations vary from state to state, but every state has workplace safety regulations in place for silica dust. The expected standard for silica dust exposure is 0.05mg/m3, on average over eight hours daily. Air monitoring is required to ensure this limit is met. There are various ways employers or employees can meet this limit and avoid silica dust exposure.
Workers should follow employer guidelines and embrace the PPE and RPE provided. While it’s important for employers to do their part against silicosis, it’s equally important that employees do their part to keep themselves protected.
Risk Assessment and Control Measures
There are risk assessments for various tasks across just about every industry, and employers must ensure they carry out risk assessments for tasks that involve silica dust exposure. A risk assessment identifies potential risks and demands controls to limit that risk.
Control measures vary, from using other materials where possible to cutting off-site. Using the correct equipment, having proper ventilation, personal protective equipment (PPE), and respiratory protective equipment (RPE). There are even rules about how to clean up without increasing the risk of silica dust inhalation.
Respiratory Protection and PPE
RPE and PPE are crucial in the battle against silicosis. Properly fitted RPE, whether a mask or respirator, can help prevent the inhalation of silica dust. RPE is more useful when combined with PPE and vice versa. Covers or disposable clothing that can be removed and disposed of at the close of business are useful. Showering and changing into fresh clothes before returning home is strongly encouraged. You shouldn’t take home dusty clothing.
RPE and PPE must be properly maintained to ensure it provides optimal protection.
Education and Training
One of the most important steps in the battle against silicosis is education and training. Controls aren’t sufficient; employers must impress the risks on their employees so everyone fully understands the risks. Employees buy-in when they understand the ins and outs of preventative measures. A health and safety training program for new employees and a refresher course should cover the danger of silica dust and what silicosis looks like.
Medical Surveillance and Early Detection
Whether an employer provides it or not, people who work in any high-risk industry should attend regular medical check-ups. There are surveillance programs for silicosis to detect it early, and those are key in the battle to avoid widespread issues for workers in the affected industries.
Early detection means medical intervention and that is key to managing the disease to prevent it from worsening and potentially developing into a much more serious health concern, such as lung cancer. Early detection and treatment could also prevent permanent lung damage.
Worker Advocacy and Reporting
Employers have to follow the relevant regulations and have a duty of care to provide employees with a safe workplace. That includes air quality and protecting against silica dust exposure. Workers also have to do their part. If there are unsafe working conditions, they should be reported and whistleblower laws exist to provide people with protection.
When it comes to workplace safety, everyone should be proactive. Employees can request training and seek out additional information to learn more. If you were exposed to silica dust or you’re concerned about silicosis, you should seek medical attention and explain the situation to your doctor.
Workplace safety is paramount – everyone should be able to attend work feeling safe and protected. With a strong understanding of the risks of silica dust exposure, employers should have controls and protections to provide their teams with the tools they need to carry out their work safely.
If you have silicosis in Australia and believe you may be entitled to silicosis compensation, reach out to AJB Stevens to discuss your case. We are happy to provide you with expert advice in a free consultation.