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Silicosis: alarming resurgence of old lung disease in Queensland workers exposed to the “new asbestos”

A recent spike in Queensland workers being diagnosed with silicosis is placing the spotlight back on this occupational lung disease which was notoriously prevalent in Australia in the 1940’s to 1960’s.

Silicosis is an incurable and progressive lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica dust, a material so life threatening it’s being referred to as the “new asbestos” and more dangerous than coal mine dust.

Silica can be found in brick, stone, cement, sand, quartz, grout, mortar, bitumen and engineered stone products.  Many occupations are at risk of silica inhalation including stonemasons, bricklayers and anyone working in the mining, construction, sandblasting or demolition industries.

Many medical experts believe the recent increase in Queensland tradies being diagnosed with silicosis can be linked to stonemasons and other tradesmen cutting and installing engineered or artificial stone products.  These products have been extensively used as benchtops in kitchens and bathrooms throughout Australia over the past decade.  This engineered or artificial stone has continued to increase in popularity as a cheaper alternative to natural stone but contains significantly higher levels of silica.

Silicosis can cause scarring (stiffening) and fluid build up on the lungs which affects your ability to breathe.  This lung disease can also increase your risk of developing conditions such as chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis and lung cancer.  The symptoms of silicosis can take as little as weeks or as long as 30 years to appear.  These symptoms can include coughing, chest pain, chest infections, weight loss, breathlessness and fatigue.  The condition can be fatal.

The three types of silicosis include:-

  1. chronic silicosis – progressive scarring (fibrosis) of the lungs which occurs over 10-30 years after first exposure;
  2. acute silicosis – inflammation and fluid build-up on the lungs which can develop within weeks and years of heavy silica exposure; and
  3. accelerated silicosis – also associated with heavy exposure (as seen by tradies dry cutting engineered stone products) which causes an accelerated increase of scarring on the lungs (progressive massive fibrosis) which can develop within 10 years of exposure.

Then there’s simple and complicated silicosis. Simple silicosis results in many small white spots (nodules) that you can see on a chest x-ray or CT scan. With complicated silicosis there are large areas of scarring called progressive massive fibrosis (PMF).

Silicosis is a debilitating and potentially life-threatening condition that can progress rapidly following exposure to silica dust or slowly over many years and decades.  It is important that anyone who has had occupational exposure to silica dust immediately report any unusual symptoms to their general practitioner and seek a referral to a respiratory physician for further investigation.

Work practices that have been widely discussed as assisting with the prevention and reduction of exposure to silica dust includes the avoidance of dry cutting products, using water for dust suppression, ensuring adequate ventilation is available and using personal protective equipment such as air filters and dust masks.

It is also imperative that state governments react to this serious issue and take immediate action to implement adequate regulations and penalties to ensure all Australians are provided with their fundamental right to a safe workplace.

For workers who have been diagnosed with this condition, their compensation rights, entitlements and the relevant time limits are as follows:-

  • Statutory claim for workers’ compensation with WorkCover Queensland which must be lodged within 6 months of the diagnosis or first visit to their treating doctor. This 6 month time limit is strictly enforced by WorkCover in our experience.  Benefits include income protection/replacement wages, medical, pharmaceutical and travel expenses, rehabilitation, adjustment to injury counselling, vocation assistance and a lump sum award at the end of the claim;
  • Common law claim for damages. If the work related silicosis condition leaves an injured worker with an ongoing impairment of lung function and forces the injured worker to stop work or change careers or leaves the injured worker with a reduction in his or her functional work capacity, a common law claim is an important consideration.  A successful common law claim will include compensation for pain and suffering, out-of-pocket expenses, past and future loss of income, past and future loss of superannuation and future medical treatment.   There are no time limits for injured workers to commence a common law claim for damages in respect of a diagnosis of silicosis.

For further information regarding the contents of this blog, contact Sean Ryan, Director on 1800 316 716 or sean@vbrlaw.com.au

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