The rising threat of Silicosis for Australian workers

Recently we have seen a rise in a tragic and terminal illness that goes by the name of Silicosis.

This is affecting Australian workers and the growing threat needs to have more awareness drawn to it as people look for ways to prevent it, and hopefully, someday find a cure.

But first, what is Silicosis?

Silicosis is a deadly upper-respiratory lung disease and it is currently incurable. It develops from being exposed to and inhaling silica dust.

Crystalline silica is a rather common mineral that is found in most rocks, sands, and clays, many products such as concrete, brick, blocks, pavers, tiles, and natural and composite stone benchtops, and cement-based materials.

Exposure to these come from construction work, such as:

  • Sweeping up crushed concrete, bricks or rock
  • Grinding mortar
  • Removing paint and/or rust with the use of power tools.
  • Performing abrasive blasting
  • Crushing, smashing, drilling, or chipping either concrete or rock
  • Putting up Drywall
  • Various other construction jobs, such as bridge or road repair

When the dust from crystalline silica is inhaled it will manifest itself in the form of severe coughing, weakness, and suffering from shortness of breath.

It can also reduce your body’s ability to fight infections, and people with the disease are at a higher risk of other lung diseases, including tuberculosis.

Since the dust that contains respirable crystalline silica (RCS) can’t be seen under ordinary light it’s impossible to detect until a worker has been infected.

What does this mean:

There are three types of Silicosis, and many may be infected and suffer for years without realizing what illness they have.

Chronic silicosis is the most common form of the disease and takes years to develop. It comes from low levels of exposure over a decade or maybe more. 

Accelerated silicosis appears within five to ten years of being exposed to high levels of crystalline silica.

Acute silicosis comes from exposure to very high levels of crystalline silica and can result in death in a matter of months.

Since once one is exposed and infected there is no cure, the best approach is to take as many preventative measures as possible.

How do we prevent it?

Awareness is one of the very most important ways to try to prevent this devastating and deadly disease.

To assist in avoiding infection,  employees should: 

  • Realise the danger of RCS dust and avoid it at all cost
  • Understand that the dust is not visible, so just because it’s not seen doesn't mean it’s not there
  • Use water to dampen down high dust areas, and make sure there is lots of ventilation in the workspace
  • Have regular lung screenings done by your healthcare provider
  • Consider requesting a respirator specifically designed to protect against crystalline silica (employers are required to provide them)
  • Always wash hands before consuming food, and shower and change clothing before leaving the workspace, so as not to take dust away on clothing

In closing:

In a media release on November 27th, 2018, it was announced that a new state-of-the-art iCare Dust Diseases Clinic has opened and is dedicated to improving access to medical screening and boosting support services for NSW workers impacted by RCS.

Dominic Perrottet, Treasurer and Minister for Industrial Relations stated at the official opening ceremony of iCare’s new clinic, located at Pitt Street,

“The NSW Government has provided medical screening services to employers and people impacted by exposure to hazardous dust for over 40 years...we are always working to identify and prevent illnesses as well improve quality of life for workers diagnosed with a dust disease and their families.” 

“It is vital they have access to timely, convenient and state-of-the-art medical care and support.”

The clinic’s screening services are free of charge and include access to x-ray, full lung function test and a medical examination with a medical specialist, as well as have wheelchair accessibility to the building.

Within a matter of hours, workers can have an appointment, a diagnosis and the necessary medical certification that allows them to have their claim determined within 10 to 30 days.

If someone believes that they may have been exposed and infected it is recommended that they contact their healthcare provider immediately. If the disease is found to be work releated they are eligible for compensation and should file accordingly.

There is never any harm in being overly careful. The only way to try and slow this disease is by finding out the areas and workers that it is infecting and bring awareness to the ways in which it can be prevented.

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