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Firstly, what is silica?

Silica (or Crystalline Silica) is found in sand, stone, concrete and mortar. It’s used to make various products, including engineered stone (for benchtops), bricks, tiles and some plastics. When you cut, crush, drill, polish, saw or grind products that contain silica, dust particles are generated that are small enough to lodge deep in your lungs.

How is silicosis caused?

The long-term effects of silica dust inhalation are that the silica can scar your lungs. It’s this scarring that is known as ‘silicosis’.

Silicosis is a permanent lung disease that can lead to breathing problems, lung cancer and a serious lung condition called Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF). The treatment options vary with your diagnosis but sadly there is no cure and silicosis can be fatal.

In the early stages of silicosis, there can actually be no symptoms at all. In fact, silicosis can be undetected for as long as ten years. When symptoms do develop, they may include shortness of breath, chest pain, tiredness and a harsh, dry cough.

There are three kinds of silicosis you can develop:

  1. Chronic silicosis – the most common kind, the result of prolonged silica dust exposure (more than 20 years).
  2. Accelerated silicosis – this develops from exposure to larger amounts of silica, over a shorter period of time (5 to 15 years).
  3. Acute silicosis – caused by exposure to large amounts of silica dust, in a short period of time.

Who is most at risk of silicosis?

Anyone who works with silica dust may be at risk of developing silicosis or an occupational lung disease. Health experts are particularly concerned about people who work with engineered stone materials because of their high silica concentration (up to 90 per cent).

Common industries and occupations with silicosis risks:

  • Stonemasons
  • Benchtop manufacturers and installers
  • Construction workers
  • Concrete-cutters
  • Miners
  • Road workers
  • Sandblasters
  • Cleaners who work around dust and debris
  • Ceramicists

How much silica dust exposure is considered safe?

According to Safe Work Australia, the current safe level for silica is 0.05 mg/m3. This is called the Workplace Exposure Standard (WES) and is measured on an eight-hour time weighted average.

Any exposure to silica dust levels above 0.05 mg/m3 could increase the risk of silicosis and is not deemed safe.

So how do workplaces measure silica dust levels?

To assess the dust hazard, businesses conduct air monitoring. Air monitoring should be conducted by a third-party certified occupational hygienist. They will assess whether the safe exposure level is being exceeded. Some workplaces also measure silica dust using equipment such as dust monitors or dust samplers.

Are there regulations for silica dust in the workplace?

Yes. If you work with construction dust, your employer has a duty of care to all their workers. While the laws may vary among states and territories, all employers have an obligation to follow preventative measures to protect their employees from occupational silicosis risk factors.

Employers should have a silica risk management plan in place. The model Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations detail the specific duties businesses are required to do in order to manage the risks to health and safety. These apply to handling, generating and storing silica.

How should your employer be reducing the risks of silica exposure?

There are several ways for businesses to manage safe silica exposure levels and reduce risks to workers. Safe Work Australia list these areas:

  1. Eliminating or substituting the risk – replacing silica products with other options that have no silica or lower levels.
  2. Isolating the hazard – designating areas for tasks that involve dust and using enclosures and automation for dust generating tasks.
  3. Engineering controls – minimise the risk of exposure to generated dust with local exhaust ventilation, water suppression (wet cutting) or tools with dust collection attachments.
  4. Administrative controls – good housekeeping policies, shift rotations and modifying cutting sequences.
  5. Personal protective equipment - including appropriate respiratory protective equipment (generally a minimum of a P2 efficiency half face respirator) and work clothing that does not collect dust.

More than one control will normally be required to adequately protect workers, and must be used when processing engineered stone.

What should I do if I’ve been exposed to too much silica dust at work? How do I report unsafe silica dust exposure?

The first thing to note is that timing is important. There are strict time limits which apply to this area of the law. These depend on where and when you were exposed and may vary from state to state.

If you’ve been exposed to unsafe workplace levels of silica, you should see your GP. In Victoria, if you’re diagnosed with silicosis or another occupational lung disease, then you need to notify your employer within 30 days of receiving a diagnosis. If it’s been more than 30 days, notify them as soon as possible and seek legal advice.

Your employer has a responsibility to:

  • keep a register of injuries
  • make it clear to employees how to report and record injuries in the register
  • display information about reporting injuries (including timeframes) in a visible place.

If you are diagnosed with silicosis, you or your Health and Safety Representative can record your diagnosis in the register.

Make sure you get all the relevant medical advice and schedule to have regular check-ups so you can monitor your health. Documentation and evidence are critical if you decide to make a claim. Are you a union member? If yes, then also speak with your union and follow their advice.

Getting legal advice and compensation for silicosis

Circumstances may vary but most claims for silicosis compensation are covered by the workers’ compensation scheme in your State or Territory and may include workers’ compensation benefits and common law damages.

If you’ve been diagnosed with silicosis or other workplace dust related health conditions, we can help you understand your legal rights. Our team have combined decades of experience working in silicosis litigation. We are the experts in dust disease law and offer legal services in this area on a No-Win No-Fee basis.

No-Win No-Fee for silicosis claims at Gordon Legal

Silicosis law is highly specialised. At Gordon Legal, our silicosis lawyers are the leading experts in their field. We can help you navigate the system from start to finish, simplifying a complicated process.

We understand that when you are faced with a silicosis diagnosis then time is precious for you and your family. We’ll promptly explain the steps involved and help you achieve financial compensation as quickly as possible.

At Gordon Legal, we offer legal services in this area on a No-Win No-Fee basis, so you won’t be out of pocket. We’ll provide expert advice without any cost or obligation – you won’t be responsible for any upfront legal fees or disbursements (out of pocket expenses) until the end of your successful claim.

We can discuss this fee structure, and answer all your questions, at a time and place that’s convenient for you. To contact us now click here or call 03 9603 3000.

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