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Silica - The 'New Asbestos' or a New Wave of an 'Old' Dust Disease?

Silica – The ‘New Asbestos’ or a New Wave of an ‘Old’ Dust Disease?

Published on May 10, 2023 by Tim Gauci and Michael BarnesTim Gauci and Michael Barnes

Recent news that the then Opposition Leader Chris Minns pledged that a Labor government, if elected, would ban engineered stone slabs or benchtops containing more than 40 per cent crystalline silica is the latest headline in an ever-growing wave of concern over what has been referred to as ‘the asbestos of the 2020’s’. Now it is Premier Minns, and it’s a question of ‘watch this space’.

The danger of silica, however, is an old problem that has been long known but, it appears, briefly forgotten.

Before the true danger of asbestos dust and fibre became known to Australians and the first waves of known victims of that deadly dust were counted, the effect of exposure to silica, was more common knowledge.

Silicosis, caused by exposure to silica, a naturally occurring and widely abundant mineral that forms the major component of most rocks and soils, is an incurable and progressive lung disease marked by irreversible scarring and inflammation in the lungs.  

The Dust Diseases Board of NSW was initially established in 1942, to provide compensation to workers and or their dependants, who have developed lung disease caused by occupational exposure to dust. It was workers who had been disabled by silicosis or other disease caused by exposure to silica dust that was front of mind.

The known class of workers affected by exposure included, at that time, stonemasons, quarrymen, rockchoppers, sewer miners, iron workers, and workers in the brick, tile and pottery industries.

The effects of exposure to silica had already been known for centuries. The first mention of silicosis as a lung disease was as early as the ancient Greeks. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries lung diseases and asthmatic conditions were well documented by industrial hygienists in the mining and stone cutting industries.

Exposure to silica is also a carcinogen and can cause silica induced cancers including lung cancers.

By the time the Dust Diseases Board was established, at a time when issues around occupational health and safety began to gain traction in western society generally, measures to protect workers from the danger of exposure to Silica were beginning to be taken. These measures included the monitoring of silica dust levels, the use of ventilation and dust extractors, the use of wet methods to keep dust levels down and the use of respiratory protection for workers. In addition, certain practices and techniques such as the use of pure silica for sandblasting were outlawed.   These preventative methods were somewhat effective, particularly in certain industries such as the mining industry, in preventing the very heavy exposures to silica dust that has been previously occurring.

In western countries such as Australia and the United States, the prevailing thought was that silicosis was an occupational disease, that new and improved work health and safety had consigned to the past.

In Australia, attentions began to shift to the dangers presented by asbestos which, before the 1980’s was thought by most ordinary Australians to be a safe and benign material which had been heavily used post World War 2 to build ‘fibro’ residences throughout suburbia.

The Dust Diseases Tribunal of NSW was established in 1989 as a specialised Court to hear claims for damages of sufferers of dust diseases. Prior to this, such claims were heard in the Supreme Court of NSW and the NSW District Court however, the various Trade Unions had pressured the government that suffers from dust disease particularly the asbestos related cancer, mesothelioma were often passing away from their illness before the Courts could deal with their claims.

Whilst a significant number of claims for silica inducted diseases were also heard by the Tribunal, particularly in the early period of its operation, eventually the vast majority of claims heard by the Tribunal were those arising out of exposure to asbestos.

Now, a new wave of workers exposed to dangerous levels of silica has arisen out of the increasing popularity of engineered stone used in new kitchens and kitchen renovations as a budget – friendly choice for kitchen benchtops, typically simpler and cheaper that traditional granite or marble while being just as durable and long lasting.

Engineered stone, however, contains a far higher content of crystalline silica than natural stone, over 90% compared to granite with 30% and marble which has just 3%.

A concern associated with engineered stone has been on the radar for some time; In 1997 the international Agency for Research on Cancer classified respirable crystalline silica as a ‘human carcinogen’ and stated;

‘There have been recent outbreaks of severe, progressive forms of silicosis in counties, including Israel, Spain and Australia due to the introduction of silica containing  artificial stone’.

The sheer numbers of affected Australian stonemason workers effected by the deadly dust have made it a problem impossible to ignore. Various medical experts suggest that 1 in 4 stonemasons working with engineered stone will develop silicosis and the Cancer Council suggests that 230 people develop lung cancer as a result of past exposure to silica.

The stance taken by now premier Chris Minns has been welcomed by the various workers unions including the construction union, the CFMEU, who are pushing to fast track a national ban on engineered stone with high silica content.

Additionally, the Australian Workers Union have highlighted the need for workplace reforms outside of the engineered stone industry, including workers involved in tunnelling through sandstone under Sydney, and quarrying to ensure the safety of those workers.

The danger and health risks associated were first known by some as early as the 1950’s however a full ban on asbestos products in Australian was not made until 2003.

 It is hoped that it does not take as long for action to be taken in response to the growing danger of silica, particularly as it relates to engineered stone, or the high number of asbestos related cases seen in the Dust Diseases Tribunal of NSW will soon be eclipsed by cases associated with silica related illnesses.

If you are someone who suspects that they have been exposed to silica dust, in the course of employment you should contact Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers immediately. We can assist with putting you in touch with the Dust Diseases Authority, the successor to the Dust Diseases Board, who can arrange for you to have free radiological investigations of your lung.

Should radiological investigations show indications of silica induced lung disease you will have compensation options available to you through the Dust Diseases Authority through a ‘no fault’ scheme which include payment of a fortnightly compensation payment as well as payment of your medical and treatment expenses. You may also receive assistance with domestic duties.

In addition to compensation with the Dust Diseases Authority, we can assist you with exploring your common law rights in a claim in damages against your employer or former employer for negligently exposing you to the risks of silica dust.

For assistance on your matter, please contact Tim Gauci on 02 8661 0250 or Michael Barnes on 02 8226 7356. Alternatively you can contact us here.

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