A disease thought all but eradicated has made an unlikely return to the lives of Australian workers.

What is silicosis?

Silicosis is a disease caused by inhaling dust containing crystalline silica. The dust is released by cutting, crushing, polishing or drilling materials which contain silica – including but not limited to sandstone, engineered or manmade stone products, granite, marble, concrete, brick, quartz and sand.

Historically, the workers most likely to be exposed to silica dust were jack pick and jackhammer operators who drilled through sandstone rock for foundations. Workers were rarely provided with masks or other protective equipment in these days, and breathed in massive amounts of dust.

There has been a sudden surge in the number of workers being diagnosed with silicosis. In Queensland alone there have been 22 silicosis claims lodged with WorkCover. Six of these claims are by workers considered terminally ill – one only 27 years of age.

The epidemic has been attributed to the rise of ‘engineered stone’ bench tops in kitchens. Engineered stone is a composite material containing crushed stone and an adhesive (usually resin). It is more durable and cheaper than non-reconstituted stones. However, it has a silica content of about 90% – whereas natural marble has a silica content of around 5%.

Workers who are exposed to silica dust by working with engineered stone are more likely to develop a type of silicosis called accelerated silicosis. Accelerated silicosis is caused by high levels of exposure and will usually develop as progressive scarring of the lungs within 10 years of a person first being exposed to silica dust. Common symptoms include breathlessness, fever, severe cough and chest pains. Lung cancers and kidney disease are often also caused by silica exposure.

The Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand has declared a public health crisis and warns that unless urgent safety precautions are adopted this will only get worse.

The disease is preventable. Some of the safety measures recommended by Safework NSW include eliminating tasks which generate dust where possible, applying water suppression systems to reduce dust generation, using local exhaust ventilation systems to remove dust at the source, and using well maintained and appropriate personal protective equipment. Safework NSW also recommends substituting safer products for engineered stone where possible.

If you or your family member is diagnosed with silicosis, there may be an entitlement to compensation. Turner Freeman has the largest and most experienced dust diseases practice in Australia, and we can provide you with expert advice about your potential entitlements.