Silicosis the “new” Asbestosis
A recent Queensland report from the ABC has again highlighted the growing danger of industrial disease, in this case, Silicosis.
“An audit of Queensland's manufacturing stone industry has revealed 98 workers have contracted the potentially deadly lung disease silicosis — 15 of those terminal — with more than 550 workplace breaches in what health experts are calling a major epidemic.”
Unfortunately, Queensland is not the only State affected by Respirable Crystalline Silica. Most other States in Australia are also seeing a return of this controllable disease and Government Ministers are concerned enough to have a national discussion about it (This reads panic stations). This now uncontrolled disease is of serious concern in all countries that manufacture, import or use Artificial Stone. The danger of working with silica has been well known for centuries, it is the oldest industrial disease known to humans and while lung transplants are possible with reasonable outcomes, there is no cure for silicosis.
Crystalline Silica is found naturally in rocks, stone, soil, sand all over the earth, but now engineered material known as “artificial stone”, mainly used to create kitchen, bathroom and laundry bench tops, is being produced throughout the world replacing natural stone as a cheaper viable alternative.
While natural stone etc. has a silica content up to 40%, artificial stone can be 90-100% silica. Engineered stone is a composite material made of crushed stone bound together by an adhesive. The polyester resins used to bind the stone also has features which add to the danger for workers. When drilling, cutting, polishing or grinding this stone, crystalline silica dust particles can easily enter the lungs through inhalation, causing silicosis and many other diseases including, emphysema, lung cancer and bronchitis, if adequate protection is not used.
Not just stone masons
The ABC report (see below) refers to “stone masons” being affected, which, really downplays those it may affect. It is not only stone masons working with this material who are in danger, it is plumbers, carpenters, electricians, labourers or any other worker, manufacturing, preparing or installing these items in any building or home. It may also include other people in the home at the time of benchtop cutting and installation or building fit-outs as well as people in the near vicinity working in other occupations not directly involved. Due to the very fine particles found in the dust it could remain in the air for extended periods up to 500 hours.
Due to the increased demand and wide spread use of artificial stone items and lots of money being made, basic safety measures have been discarded and ignored. What was deemed controllable is now exposed as uncontrolled.
The only safe way of working with silica content is by wet cutting, well-controlled ventilation, specialist dust removal equipment and appropriate masks individually fitted. It is through controlled safety and education that those working with or near silica can reduce the level of danger from this and other related diseases.
While the appropriate use of equipment, combined with knowledge of the serious dangers associated with silica is vital, it means nothing if the appropriate equipment or education is not supplied or its use not encouraged, which, appears to be the missing component.
Governments and their agencies, combined with employers’ responsible for workers safety, have once again failed to protect workers from the oldest industrial disease known to humans. In the most technologically advanced era ever, why are workers still placed in this danger? The drive for greater profit, unfettered competition, survival at all and any cost, greed, lack of appropriate government oversight, reduction of “red tape”, corruption, deliberately dumbing down of workers’ safety knowledge, interwoven with unfettered technological advances owned and controlled by the few, all equate to the one cause, Capitalism.
Removing the cause of the problem will rectify all the symptoms.