The silent danger in dusty workplaces

"It's absolutely abominable. This disease has been around since biblical times – we have early philosophers recording cases of miners dying from dust. The fact that a centuries old disease is still affecting – and killing – workers in 2019 is a disgrace. Why? Because a deadly product is being used unabated and insufficiently regulated in dusty workplaces around Australia." Jonathan Walsh, Maurice Blackburn Asbestos and Dust Diseases Principal Lawyer.

What is silicosis?

Silicosis is an incurable, often fatal, lung disease caused by breathing dust containing fragments of 'crystalline silica'. It has been heartbreakingly described as a disease that suffocates you from the inside out.

Silica is found in almost every type of natural rock, sand, clay and gravel in Australia, but is most potent and dangerous in man-made, artificial stone products, such as kitchen benchtops. So while miners, construction and quarry workers have traditionally been more prone to silicosis, there has been an alarming spike recently in the number of stonemasons diagnosed with the condition.

According to Jonathan Walsh, Maurice Blackburn Asbestos and Dust Diseases Principal Lawyer, silicosis can occur in all dusty workplaces.

"The resurgence of cases has become so prolific, particularly amongst young men, that silicosis is being described as an epidemic,’ he said. “Anyone who works in a dusty workplace could be at risk."

You might be at risk if you work in the following industries:

  • Stone masonry and cutting
  • Various forms of mining, such as coal and hard rock mining
  • Construction work
  • Tunnel work
  • Sand blasting
  • Glass manufacturing
  • Ceramics work
  • Steel industry work
  • Quarrying

What is behind the resurgence of silicosis?

How is such a preventable disease being allowed not just to occur, but to flourish? According to Walsh, it is due to a perfect storm of high demand, low regulation and a general ignorance from many employers that dust is fine.

"The Australian housing boom has meant a huge increase in housing developments, and that in turn has meant a spike in demand for artificial stone benchtops. Large developers and construction companies began subcontracting stonemasonry to smaller outfits and sole traders to get projects delivered on time and to budget, leading to a huge number of unregulated workers cutting stone benchtops without the proper protection or awareness of the deadly dust they were breathing in."

Silicosis usually develops over a latency period – it can take twenty to thirty years for people to develop symptoms and be diagnosed. But largely due to the increased demand for artificial stone benchtops, we are seeing the disease develop at a much more intense and accelerated rate.

What should you do if you think you have been exposed to silica dust?

1. Get a medical examination

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.

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

Any person who works in industries with exposure to inhaled silica 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 being exposed to silica dust at your workplace but have not been diagnosed with silicosis, you should implement immediate safety procedures to minimise your exposure 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.

It is understandable that many people don’t want to confront their employer and put their jobs in jeopardy, however it is important to understand your rights. Talk to your union or a lawyer first.

Justice for workers is what drives Jonathan Walsh and his team, who have fought on behalf of many silicosis clients. A large portion of dust disease cases are being filed in the Supreme Court, because the value of the claims exceeds $750,000.

In many cases of silicosis, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers is acting on behalf of younger victims and claims relating to future loss of earning capacity. Workers in their 20’s and 30’s who have silicosis are no longer able to work in their industry, and are also advised to not work in any related fields either because of the risk of dust exposure. Meaning they are facing the prospect of completely reskilling and retraining or being unemployed. Their future earning capacity is severely affected.

Maurice Blackburn Lawyers are experts in silicosis, Occupational Health and Lung disease and are committed to fighting for a fair go for all workers. They offer a free first consultation so it doesn’t cost you anything to find out where you stand.

Should I make an individual claim or join a class action?

People affected by workplace silica exposure have a choice to make as to whether they progress an individual case or join a class action. It is important for each individual to get specialist legal advice about what may be best for them.

Maurice Blackburn has extensive experience both in running silicosis matters and also as Australia’s largest class actions law firm. That experience has shown us often the best option for any injured worker impacted by silicosis or similar dust diseases is to bring an individual claim for a lump sum, for these key reasons:

  • Silicosis affects workers in different ways depending on the extent of exposure and the nature and extent of their disease, and an individual claim is the best way to make sure personal circumstances are properly taken into account in any legal case;
  • This includes specifics that are important to you and your family, such as making sure you are properly compensated for your pain and suffering, your potential medical and out of pocket expenses, any economic loss you may have suffered or will suffer in future, and the potential future care and assistance you may need;
  • An individual claim also takes into consideration the potential for your disease to progress and worsen over time, which is particularly important when dealing with diseases such as silicosis; and
  • The laws around these matters differ for each state, so individual claims navigate each individual’s case to ensure they get their full entitlements.

What is important to understand though is that this choice could be final, as in our experience it is likely that any person who pursues compensation via a class action will have to agree not to bring any claims in future, irrespective of if their condition worsens or circumstances change.

If you are weighing up your options, seek specialist legal advice that includes taking into consideration your individual circumstances and any potential progression of your disease.

Gary’s Story

"You don’t want to wear protective gear? Get another job. Sure, jobs can be hard to find. But they’re easier to find than a new pair of lungs." Gary McFarlane, Silicosis patient.

Gary McFarlane, diagnosed with Silicosis

Gary McFarlane was good at his job as a sandblaster, but now he wishes he wasn’t. Because perhaps then he wouldn’t be diagnosed with silicosis and lung cancer as a result of breathing in silica dust during his 30-year career.

When Gary started out as a sandblaster for an industrial maintenance contractor in 1969, there was very little protection for workers. He wore nothing except "a hanky and a pair of sunnies". Later in his career he used a mask and respirator, but constantly had to pull them off to check his work or to see what he was doing, exposing him to minute silica sand particles in the air.

He first started noticing symptoms in 2017 – shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, fatigue. It wasn’t until he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia that he was diagnosed with lung cancer and silicosis.

Gary was put in touch with Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, based on their reputation working on the James Hardy asbestos case. He received a six-figure compensation payout from his former employer, close to $600,000. This is helping with his medical treatment and will set things up for his family when he’s not here.

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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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