Silicosis has become a bigger work safety concern than asbestosis. We look at the types of materials that present a risk, who it affects, how Australian regulators and the insurance sector are responding to the emerging threat and what you need to know now.
The new dust disease risk
Silicosis is an aggressive and untreatable form of lung disease that comes from breathing in silica dust, which is in materials such as concrete, bricks, tiles, sandstone, granite and manufactured stone. The most common form of the disease can take upwards of 10 years to appear after exposure to low or moderate amounts of silica. Symptoms may be mild at first, and slowly but progressively become worse.
If you work in mining, glass manufacturing, road repair, sandblasting, masonry, roofing, stone cutting or construction, you’re at risk. Manufactured stone is a particular focus of attention - the New South Wales Legislative Council’s 2019 review of the Dust Diseases scheme will be on the manufactured stone sector.
Manufactured stone has enjoyed widespread popularity and use in the recent building boom. It is the preferred material for kitchen benchtops and in high demand for renovations. All this adds up to high exposure in large numbers for stonemasons and related trades, pointing to a worse than asbestosis epidemic in the making.
Products containing silica include
- manufactured solid stone products such as composite (engineered) stone benchtops
- cement, mortar and grout
- concrete, concrete blocks and fibre cement products
- drywall and some plasterboards, and
- pavers and tiles including roof tiles.
Do you understand the silicosis risk?
Safe Work Australia has conducted research into the range of trades involved with the manufacture and cutting of natural and composite stone benchtops. The findings show that installation is a key risk area, particularly for people working without suitable personal protection and using handheld tools, with limited wet tools.
One major problem to date is lack of awareness and not knowing where to find the information the industry needs to safely manage silicosis risk. Safe Work found that the main source of safety messages is informal, through work relationships and conversation within your own business network with building managers or suppliers, but these can be limited to discussions about liability.
In addition to not necessarily knowing what safety best practice looks like another difficulty is that the regulations and penalties around necessary safety practices have not been widely circulated, leaving tradies to simply do what they think is best.
“I take a commonsense approach… I try to work outside, I try to minimise angle grinder work, I try to cut wet… but with stone grinders you need to use them dry, it throws up a lot of dust ‒ does it also cause silicosis?”
Safe Work Australia 2018 research stonemason respondent
The new regulatory standard and how to meet it
In 2019 state and federal workplace regulators voted to halve acceptable workplace exposures to 0.05 milligrams of silica per cubic metre of material and some states (Western Australia, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory) wanted to see this reduced further to 0.02mg, in line with the United States.
This move is to be supported by governmental audits focusing on compliance, how the risk of breathing in silica dust is being managed and guidelines for business operators.
Safe Work Australia has introduced guidelines to help business owners or building managers understand and make decisions about protecting their workers from exposure to silica dust.
Required safety measures include cutting, grinding and polishing methods, engineering controls, ventilation, respirators and collecting and isolating dust containing silica particles.
With these regulatory changes, some insurance providers are putting exclusions around silica risk related products and activities. This is due to both the increase of incidents being submitted for silicosis-related illness and the high cost involved with these claims (a lung transplant comes with about a $135K price tag). At Gallagher we’ve also noticed some insurers are applying exclusions to motor and/or liability policies.
Workers, contractors and employers all stand to be affected by silicosis. An experienced insurance broker can help you understand how you need to respond in order to protect yourself, your workers and your business. For example, if you are a supplier of manufactured stone products the insurance cover that applies is public liability including bodily injury. In addition to the damages awarded in a court action, a public liability insurance policy covers the legal costs of investigating and defending you or your business against claims.
Find out if you’re covered
Get expert advice from a construction industry insurance expert. Gallagher offers existing and potential clients a free, no obligation review of your current insurance cover. Find out if you have the insurance protection that you need. We’re here to help.