There has been a significant rise in cases of silicosis in recent years, and we have seen even young workers being diagnosed with the disease. Symptoms such as breathing difficulties may appear months or years after exposure and can worsen over time to include persistent cough, shortness of breath and bronchitis-like symptoms, along with other complications.
Workers exposed to silica in the course of their employment are likely to have access to workers compensation benefits, including income maintenance payments and assistance with re-training as often the worker has to leave their work to avoid further exposure after a diagnosis. Recent changes in the regulations also allow workers who have developed silicosis after work related exposure to silica to reimbursement for medical treatment throughout their lifetime.
Silica is present in low to moderate levels in natural stone, such as granite, sandstone and slate. However, it has a high concentration in engineered stone, commonly used as kitchen and bathroom benchtops. Silica dust is released when these materials are cut, drilled or ground. About 6.6% of all Australian workers have been exposed to silica dust, with 3.3% having a high level of exposure. The occupations with the highest rates of exposure are miners, construction workers, quarry worker, engineers, plumbers, handypersons, heavy vehicle drivers, and farmers. Because engineered stone has the potential to release significant amounts of silica dust and since its popularity has recently increased, workers manufacturing and installing engineered stone are particularly at risk of developing silicosis.
Due to the dangers that silica dust can pose, silica dust is classified as a hazardous substance with work health and safety regulations requiring control measures to be put in place if there is a risk of exposure. These include:
However, a 2019 Audit Report on Respirable Crystalline Silica Compliance Program showed that non-compliance with the work health and safety regulations was high across both the construction industry and fabricators and installers of engineered stone.
Most workplaces audited did not provide health monitoring to workers. This is concerning, since silicosis often initially presents with no symptoms, making monitoring important to catch it early and prevent further exposure. There was also often a lack of air monitoring, which is vital to ensure that the concentration of silica dust in the air remains at a safe level. Many workplaces also didn’t provide sufficient respiratory protection equipment to workers.
This widespread non-compliance with the workplace safety regulations means that many workers in these industries could be at risk of silicosis. Silicosis cannot be cured, it can only be managed.
Johnston Withers Lawyers has experienced dust disease and workers compensation lawyers who can assist with seeking compensation. We have offices in Adelaide, Murray Bridge, Clare, Port Augusta, Roxby Downs and Whyalla.
Further information about the risks of exposure to silica dust and information on safety measures and work health and safety laws can be found at www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au and www.safework.sa.gov.au.
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