Australia’s emerging health epidemic: Silicosis

“If I knew it was Silicosis, I would have quit.”

Life used to be exciting for Braden Barnes. He and his wife, Renee and two young boys were active, always living life to the full. These days are completely different.

Four years ago Braden was diagnosed with Silicosis - an incurable and often fatal lung disease contracted through exposure to silica dust. Silica dust is highly prevalent in engineered stone products. Braden’s work as a stonemason involved the cutting and installation of stone products such as kitchen benchtops and bathroom vanities. 

“Man-made stone should be banned. There is no safe way of producing and manufacturing stone without producing some sort of dust. There needs to be more workplace inspections and education for workplaces on the importance of safety,” Braden said.

Epidemic worse than asbestos

With the increasing popularity of manufactured stone benchtops, there has been a significant rise in the number of stonemasons being diagnosed with Silicosis. Traditionally miners, construction and quarry workers were prone to the disease, but a new generation of workers are now at risk.

In fact, a recent audit of more than 800 workers in the manufacturing stone industry revealed that 115 cases of silicosis — 16 of which were terminal.

Jonathan Walsh, Principal Lawyer in Dust Diseases says many workers who were being diagnosed with silicosis or other diseases associated with high exposure to silica dust including lung cancer were "phenomenally young".

“Silicosis deaths appear to be a major epidemic worse than asbestos,” says Jonathan.

"We are looking at workers in their 20s and their 30s. To be told that they have silicosis and that they may not survive the decade - that future is extremely bleak.”

Do you know the risks?

If Braden knew the health implications of his job, he would never have continued working in the field.

“Follow manufacturers’ procedures and get the free health checks,” says Braden.  

Six of Braden’s colleagues that have also been diagnosed with Silicosis. He says the experience has completely changed his and his family’s lives.

“Constant appointments, financial concerns, stress, the future is unknown. Trying to explain everything to the kids is hard. One day I’m OK, the next I need to sleep all day due to fatigue. It’s socially isolating."

"Silicosis has affected my entire family’s mental health.”

Think you’ve been exposed? Here’s what to do.

1. Get a medical examination

Many who work in dusty industries aren’t aware they could have a lung disease because often, doctors don’t see the link between respiratory issues and the type of work the patient does for a living. It’s also made more difficult because it can take years for people to develop silica-related illnesses.

If you have worked in a dusty workplace and are concerned you may be at risk, go and see your GP and inform them of your occupation and dust exposure levels.

You should get regular medical examinations and be monitored for signs and symptoms of lung disease.

If you have a cough, phlegm, or breathing difficulty that is not improving, you should immediately flag this with your GP and notify them of your working conditions. Some people with acute silicosis also have fever, weight loss, and fatigue.

2. Use safety equipment

If you think you are exposed to silica dust at your workplace but have not been diagnosed with Silicosis, you should implement immediate safety procedures to minimise your exposure when at work.

By law, your workplace should be offering you the correct equipment and clothing to protect yourself. If this is the case, use it.

If your place of employment has no safety equipment, you should look to get some yourself. Your health is far more important than being the odd one out at work.

3. Get legal advice

If you have been diagnosed with Silicosis, it is important to know that you may be entitled to compensation.

At Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, with a free first appointment, it doesn’t cost you anything to find out where you stand. We appreciate that many people don’t want to confront their employer and put their jobs in jeopardy, however it is important to understand your rights, so talk to your union or a lawyer first.

Put your health first

Justice for workers is what drives Jonathan and his expert team, who have fought on behalf of many Silicosis clients.

“For those younger workers, it is usually not possible to go back into any dusty environments – meaning they need to completely retrain and re-skill,” says Jonathan. “This can severely impact future earning potential as well as put extra strain on the immediate finances.”

“Make sure you know your risks and always put your health first. If you haven’t been diagnosed with any lung disease but you’re concerned about what may happen in the future, we have a Dust Exposure Register that’s completely free to use and logs a record of any exposure you may have had.”

Braden also hopes many people take the rise in Silicosis diagnoses seriously.

“Don’t take short cuts on safety. The risk outweighs the benefits.”

If you need legal advice, contact us for free today.

RELATED LEGAL SERVICES: Silicosis lung disease

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Jonathan Walsh

Maurice Blackburn Brisbane
Jonathan Walsh is a Principal and the Queensland practice group leader for asbestos law and dust diseases, based in Maurice Blackburn’s Brisbane office. Jonathan is also a Law Society of NSW Accredited Specialist in Personal Injury (Dust Diseases). This additional qualification stands him head and ...

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