An update on silica-related injuries

1 September 2021
Silica continues to pose a significant risk to workers employed across various industries in Australia and overseas.

Silica can be found in sand, granite, marble, stone and engineered stone, and has long been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Exposure to respirable silica dust is most commonly associated with silicosis (including advanced silicosis otherwise known as Progressive Massive Fibrosis), but can also cause lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), kidney disease and autoimmune conditions.

The Global Burden of Disease Study estimate that there are 10,400 silica-related deaths each year and, with latency periods as short as three (3) years in some cases, men and women of all ages are at risk of developing silica-related injuries.

At risk occupations

Historically, occupations such as stonemasons, tunnellers, drillers, underground miners, quarrymen, foundry workers, potters, sandblasters, bricklayers and concrete cutters, have been considered at greatest risk of silica-related injuries.

However, in the last 24 months there have been silica-related injury trends emerging across other industries less commonly associated with silica exposure, such as in the following case studies:

Worker example #1 – carpenter

We act for a 43-year-old carpenter who has developed silicosis with progressive massive fibrosis. His condition is terminal.

His exposure occurred between 2001 and 2020, drilling into concrete to install cyclone rods, cutting fibre cement sheeting with an angle grinder, cutting concrete and refinishing concrete culverts. He was never provided with respiratory protective equipment and was not warned of the dangers of respirable silica dust.

Worker example #2 – open cut mining supervisor

We act for a 54-year-old mining supervisor who does not suffer from silicosis but has been diagnosed with progressive systemic sclerosis subsequent to silica exposure. His condition is terminal.

He has worked exclusively at open cut coal mines in Queensland between about 2002 and about 2019. The use of respiratory protective equipment was never enforced when working in the open air and there was no safety briefing provided regarding the dangers of respirable coal or respirable silica dust.

Worker example #3 – concreter

We act for a 53-year-old concreter working for a local council who has developed silicosis with progressive massive fibrosis. His condition is terminal.

His exposure occurred between 2004 and 2021, constructing formwork, and pouring and cutting concrete. He was never provided with respiratory protective equipment and was not warned of the dangers of respirable silica dust.

National Dust Disease Taskforce Final Report

In July 2021, the National Dust Diseases Taskforce released its Final Report regarding the prevention, early identification, control and management of accelerated silicosis from engineered stone and other occupational dust diseases.

Unfortunately, the Final Report and recommendations emerging from the National Dust Diseases Taskforce have done little to incite change in these impacted industries and do what is necessary to keep Australian workers safe in the workplace. We have been vocal in our defence of the Australian workforces’ rights and the inadequacy of recommendations made by the National Dust Diseases Taskforce.

In particular, we are continuing to advocate for a maximum exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica of 0.025 milligrams per cubic metre over an 8-hour shift across all industries, the implementation of tough penalties for employers who do not comply, and an immediate total ban on all forms of dry cutting of engineered stone or concrete. We consider it imperative that more is done urgently to ensure the safety of all Australian workers across all at risk industries.

Terminal Illness claims in Queensland

In Queensland, pursuant to the Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld) (WCRA), workers diagnosed with a condition that is anticipated to terminate their life are entitled to lump sum benefits up to a total of $841,270.00. Over the last few years, this has offered valuable compensation to workers diagnosed with terminal silica-related injuries, allowing them to support their families, arrange care and assistance, and purchase aides and equipment.

These statutory rights are in addition to a right to claim common law damages against a workers employer or manufacturers of silica containing products.

In order for workers to access these statutory benefits, the workers compensation insurer must ‘accept the doctor’s diagnosis of the terminal nature of the workers condition’.

Unfortunately, in the last six (6) months WorkCover Queensland and various self-insurers in Queensland have begun rejecting Terminal Illness claims for workers suffering from silica-related injuries on the basis that their death is not imminent and they therefore do not accept the terminal nature of their condition.

Jonathan Walsh and Sean Sweeney of our Queensland Dust Diseases Department are currently involved in the first case brought before the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission (QIRC) challenging an insurer’s rejection of a workers Terminal Illness claim on these grounds.

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