Silicosis the biggest threat to tradies since asbestos

Studies have established a fatal link with the incidence of lung cancer, silicosis and fibrosis.
Studies have established a fatal link with the incidence of lung cancer, silicosis and fibrosis.

SILICOSIS is emerging as the biggest threat to tradies since asbestos, with five confirmed cases already diagnosed in Western Australia.

Tradies installing kitchen benchtops are exposing themselves and their customers to potentially deadly levels of silica dust as artificial stone tops increase in popularity.

Unions WA assistant secretary Owen Whittle confirmed five WA workers had already been diagnosed with the condition, which can cause irreversible lung damage.

“Exposure to silica dust is commonly caused through working kitchen benchtops and in mining and studies have established a fatal link with the incidence of lung cancer, silicosis and fibrosis,” he said.

“It is horrifying that workers have had their health badly harmed after a diagnosis of silicosis.”

Workers have been warned about health risks caused by exposure to silica dust for workers in the stone benchtop manufacturing, finishing and installation industries.

“The fear of more serious consequences is a burden for them, their families and co-workers,” Mr Whittle added.

“Sadly, these are early days as we must wait out a health monitoring program of affected workers and workplaces which has only just begun.

“In WA more than elsewhere, we know from asbestosis that we must learn the lessons of the past. Decisive and urgent action is needed.”

Father-of-two Terry, who did not want to use his real name as he still works in kitchen benchtop industry, fears he has the lung disease after a scan this year identified large nodules in his lung.

He is currently on the public waiting list to see a specialist to fully assess his condition.

“There are a lot of cowboys in the housing construction and renovation industry,” he said.

”I’ve seen guys that have tried to seek medical attention and they get sacked.

“In my last job the boss handed me a paper face mask as protection when either a cartage face mask or an oxygenated suit are required when exposed to silica dust.

“Doing on-site installations when the measurements are wrong, benchtops are not sent back to be recut, it’s dry cut on-site with little or no ventilation.

“I’d leave those jobs covered in dust and of course the home or businesses covered as well.

“Now that I know about these risks, I worry for mates I’ve worked with and customers as well.

“Dry cutting is happening every day on site, and customers need to be aware that if you want to change your sink or hot plate with a bigger one in years to come it will be dry cut in your home unless you remove the whole kitchen top.”

Silica dust can prove toxic to workers. Picture: iStock

Last month WorkSafe issued a safety alert on the health risks caused by exposure to silica dust for workers in the stone benchtop manufacturing, finishing and installation industries.

Federal and State Government work safety representatives also met this week to consider a new work heathy and safety standard for exposure to silica dust.

Mr Whittle said the current workplace exposure level for silica dust was set in 1983.

“That standard is horribly out of date for several key reasons,” he said.

“The first major factor is the relatively recent and massive growth in the use of cheaper artificial granite for counter or kitchen tops.

“Artificial stone contains around 90 per cent of the dangerous component, silica, about twice as natural granite.

“Over the decades since the current standard was set, many medical research studies have established a fatal link between exposure to silica dusts and the incidence of lung cancer, silicosis and fibrosis.”

Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia spokeswoman Melita Markey said lingering winter cold or flu symptoms may be an early warning of silicosis.

She urged those who have been exposed to silica dust that may have symptoms to seek medical attention or a screening appointment at the Society.