“Crystalline silica is the new asbestos, but Australians are simply not aware of the dangers involved in working with such a common substance as compressed stone,” Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) secretary Luke Hilikari said at the release of the new silica dust standard in late August.
There has been a significant rise in the number of workers suffering silicosis and lung cancers caused by inhaling silica particles while manufacturing, cutting and installing compressed stone benchtops.
Hilikari said the “safety standard is a huge step” and that “we’re doing it because the current Australian safety standards aren’t keeping workers safe at work.”
The new VTHC standard is a dramatic improvement on the existing standard. It reduces the definition of safe exposure to silica to 0.025mg/m3 in an 8-hour time weighted average.
This is the same concentration permitted under the United States’ safety standard and is four times lower than the current Australian one.
Silica dust, which is so fine that it can enter the deepest part of the lungs, causes irreversible scarring on the lung tissue, leading to silicosis and lung cancer.
There is no known cure for silicosis. As with asbestos, those who are exposed to crystalline silica dust face a possible death sentence.
Since last December last year, more than 100 people have put their names on legal firm Slater and Gordon’s National Silicosis Register to indicate they believe they have been exposed to silica dust in the workplace.
Crystalline silica can be found in construction materials such as bricks, tiles and concrete. However, it is highly concentrated in the composite stone now used extensively in modern kitchens and bathrooms.
Respiratory physicians attribute the rise in silicosis diagnoses to the explosion in demand for compressed stone benchtops.
Unions have launched the campaign hoping to get governments and employers to comply with the new standard and improve worker health.
Unions such as the Construction Forestry Mining Maritime and Energy Union (CFMMEU) say that employers must take action to review control measures.
CFMMEU health and safety manager Gerry Ayers said: “It is shameful that this insidious disease has not only remerged, but appears to have manifested itself within our workforce.
“Both employers and regulators must act immediately to put a halt to this.
“Workers using silica based products shouldn’t have to live with an insidious time-bomb of potential disease and personal and family tragedy.
“Profitability of companies must not be allowed to overrule and override the health and safety of workers. Cost cutting practices must stop.
“The health and safety of our workers, their families and the community in general must come first.”