We need to talk about silicosis

From the jackhammer operators and pick-and-shovel workers of the ’60s and ’70s to the young tradies working in construction and on home renovations today, if you or someone you know is working with stone, you need to get the facts straight about silicosis.

Imagine for a moment that you immigrated to Australia in the 1960s or ’70s (or perhaps for you this is a true story), you had little education, but you knew you needed a job. What you didn’t know is that by taking that job excavating Australia’s tunnels or working for the Water Board on the Sydney Basin (or any other work involving stone), you exposed yourself to the dangers of silicosis, an awful respiratory disease.

Unfortunately, this has been the case for many of my clients, who accepted and worked these jobs without the proper protection.

Diagnosis: Silicosis

Silicosis, a scarring and hardening of the lungs, is contracted through exposure to silica dust. You’ll find silica in a lot of man-made products, and it also occurs naturally. For instance, the foundations of our Sydney Basin consist of silica stone.

There are two forms of silicosis: simple silicosis and complicated silicosis, otherwise known as progressive massive fibrosis (PMF). When you develop PMF, even without further exposure to silica, your condition can deteriorate, becoming more serious and more complicated.

Silicosis results in the inability of the lungs to take a deep breath. We’ve all probably experienced the unpleasantness of shortness of breath. But a serious silicosis condition takes this a step further – and you end up being unable to breathe. With the progressive disease, the silica nodules in your lungs have coalesced, which means they’ve formed and are growing. As a result, eventually, you can’t take enough oxygen into your lungs and you basically suffocate.

Recent resurgence

Sadly, silicosis cases are no longer limited to the workers of 40 and 50 years ago who, by now, have either been compensated or died from the disease. Today, the people who are at risk are those who have anything to do with stone or sand that contains silica deposits – this includes quarry workers, people who work with sandstone and construction workers dealing with sand.

Given the popularity of reality shows such as House Rules, The Block and Better Homes and Gardens and society’s obsession with home renovations and home makeovers, silicosis is seeing a frightening revival. Why? Because silica occurs in the popular Caesarstone that so many people are using in their new kitchens and bathrooms. Young tradies are cutting it – and releasing toxic, fibrous dust particles – without taking the proper precautions.

These particles once inhaled, can cause silicosis. Developing silicosis in your late 30s or early 40s can be absolutely catastrophic: you’ll not only be unable to work but also may face a life-threatening illness.

Take the appropriate safety measures and insist on wear a cartridge mask to protect you from these poisonous particles.

Serious side effects

Aside from being a respiratory disease, silicosis causes a number of associated diseases, such as:

  • lupus
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • systemic scleroderma (another rheumatoid-type disease)
  • renal failure.

Basically, it’s a Pandora’s box of autoimmune diseases. You might have originally had simple silicosis, for example, but suffered no real disability aside from having this respiratory condition. However, you may now be totally disabled as a result of associated renal failure or rheumatoid arthritis.

Silicosis safeguarding

If you come into contact with silica at work, to protect yourself, you must tell your employer they’ve got to protect you, too. Silica is dangerous. You need to ensure you have the proper protection – again, that means a cartridge mask – when cutting and creating airborne dust. Too often, we still see workers cutting these stones without the appropriate safety measures.

If you have any concerns about your safety at work, you need to raise the issue with your boss in the first instance. If you’re a union member, raise it with your union as well as your work safety authority. Yes, I know this is easier said than done, as you may be worried about losing your job. But if you don’t do it, the bigger worry is losing your life.

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Theodora Ahilas

Maurice Blackburn Sydney
Theodora Ahilas is head of Maurice Blackburn's asbestos and dust diseases national practice. She is a Principal Lawyer and Director in our Sydney office who has more than 25 years of experience in asbestos law, who is qualified to practice in Australia and New Zealand. ...

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