Silicosis - how can it affect me?
Silicosis is a disease which mainly affects workers exposed to particles of silica. Awareness about this disease is growing and employers need to be aware of their responsibilities and how to protect their workers.
What is silica?
Silica is a generic term for crystalline silica. The most common form found in workplaces is crystalline quartz. It can be found in concrete, asphalt, bricks, aggregate, tiles, pavers, sandstone and granite. Engineered stone contains much higher levels of crystalline silica than natural stone. Particles of silica are very fine and can be as small as one micron in diameter. Apart from silicosis, exposure to silica can cause other diseases such as chronic Bronchitis, Emphysema, lung cancer, damage to the kidneys and Scleroderma.
What is Silicosis?
Silicosis is a condition caused by breathing particles of silica into the lung. Under normal circumstances the cells in the lung are able to dissolve dust particles on their own, but when too much dust is breathed in, the cells are unable to cope and dust builds up in the air sacs of the lung, resulting in scarring. In the early stages of silicosis, no symptoms are present and it can take decades for symptoms to present themselves. As the disease progresses, the following symptoms occur:
- Shortness of breath (particularly on exertion)
- Occasional chest pain
- Loss of appetite
- Minor fatigue
Fine silica dust As the disease develops, the above symptoms worsen and the condition can ultimately be fatal. There are three main forms of silicosis, Acute, Accelerated and Chronic silicosis depending on the level and the period of exposure to silica. There is currently no known cure for silicosis, so prevention is key. Slice of a lung affected by silicosis
What types of workers are at risk?
The following types of workers have been identified by Australian authorities as being at risk of being exposed to silica: Those who -
- Blast, excavate or tunnel into sandstone, clay or granite
- Drill, cut or chase concrete and brickwork, cut bricks dry
- Angle grind on concrete or masonry
- Jackhammer, scabble or chisel concrete
- Clean up dust/debris associated with the above types of activity
- Dismantle equipment covered in dust
- Demolish buildings
How are employers exposed?
Under Western Australian workplace laws, employers are legally required to provide their workers with a safe work environment and safe work practices to ensure that they are not injured on the job. Failure to comply with these laws can lead to prosecution by Worksafe, who can levy fines, shut down a business whilst it is investigating and other undesirable consequences. Penalties under Occupational Health & Safety Legislation have also recently undergone significant increases, with some fines tripling. An employer's Workers' Compensation policy is exposed to such claims, and if it is proven there is a negligence aspect associated with the illness/injury, a worker may be entitled to claim under common law for that negligence. Given the severity of the health issues associated with silica exposure, such claims are likely to be large and have negative consequences on an employer's insurance claims history. As a principal engaging contractors, there may also be an associated Public & Products Liability exposure. In short, the legal liability exposure to employers is significant and serious. Masks should be fully enclosed
What measures can be taken to control this risk?
Prior to work involving potential silica exposures occurring, some assessment needs to happen around what activities will be occurring (and whether they generate dust), who is going to be exposed to the dust, and what methods will be used to clean up afterwards. For workers whose roles necessitates exposure to such dust, it becomes crucial that the relevant Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is utilised correctly. When selecting a dust mask, reference should be made to the AS/NZS1715, Selection, Use and Maintenance of Respiratory Protective Equipment. This standard is intended as a guide to selecting the correct respirator/mask for specific air contaminants. A suitable dust mask should be marked to show that they are compliant with Australian/New Zealand Standard ASNZS/1716 Respiratory Protective Devices. It should be noted that "nuisance dust masks" of the type commonly found in retail hardware stores are not suitable for this type of work, they only provide limited protection against dust and fibres, and they are only intended for light and/or intermittent work. Other suggested risk management measures that can be utilised to mitigate dust exposure:
- Minimise the generation of dust in the first place
- Using equipment (such as drills) with dust collecting bags
- Using tools fitted with water attachments to suppress dust
- Fitting large machinery (e.g. bulldozers) with effective air filtration for their cabin
- Use of metallic shot, slag products or grit for abrasive blasting rather than sand
- Wetting down dusty work areas/processes
- Regular clean-up of the dust using an industrial vacuum or wet sweeping
Professional masks should be worn It is also crucial that employers properly document procedures in relation to the above risks to demonstrate compliance with relevant laws and ensure their business maintains best practice risk mitigation measures. Speak to your trusted insurance adviser for further risk management and mitigation advice. General Advice Warning This advice is general and does not take into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. You should consider whether the advice is suitable for you and your personal circumstances. Before you make any decision about whether to acquire a certain product, you should obtain and read the relevant product disclosure statement. WorkCover factsheet Further to the original publication of this article, WorkCover has released a Factsheet for workers regarding Silicosis claims. Access the factsheet via: https://www.workcover.wa.gov.au/storage/imported-images/2019/07/Silicosis-Fact-Sheet-July-2019.pdf