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October is National Safe Work Month and one of the weekly themes this year is “Managing Work Health Safety (WHS) risks and preventing harm”.  This theme asks us is to consider potential workplace hazards that cause injury and disease, and the ways in which these risks can either be eliminated, or at least minimised, by establishing proper workplace exposure standards for WA workers who frequently are working with silica dust.

One of the most significant workplace hazards in Western Australia is exposure to silica dust, which affects many workplaces in the construction, mining, quarrying and manufacturing industries.

What is silica dust?

Silica is a naturally occurring mineral that is commonly found in rock, sand, natural and artificial stone, clay and gravel. Respirable crystalline silica (‘RCS’) is very small particles of silica (dust) created by high-energy processes like cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, blasting, polishing and crushing of silica-containing materials.  

These airborne contaminants are extremely dangerous and breathing them in can cause disease. 

What diseases can be caused by silica dust exposure?

The most common silica-related diseases include:

  • Silicosis
  • Lung cancer
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (‘COPD’)
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Asthma
  • Autoimmune diseases including scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and renal failure

What WA industries are at risk of exposure to silica in the workplace?

With mining and construction in the top five industries in WA, workers in these industries are most at risk of silica exposure:

  • Stonemasonry
  • Construction and demolition
  • Mining and quarrying
  • Tunnel workers
  • Bricklayers
  • Steel workers
  • Sandblasters and abrasive blasting
  • Glass manufacturing
  • Ceramics work

These industries often work in exceptionally dusty environments, and workers are at an increased risk of being exposed to silica dust while involved in processes including blasting, drilling, cutting and crushing of natural rock.

Workers in the metalliferous mining sector are also at risk as they are often working underground with reduced ventilation, which is why it's crucial to have workplace exposure standards.

tunnelling and road works

Manufacturing of engineered stone benchtops is also a significant concern in Western Australia. WorkSafe WA performed over 150 workplace inspections between July 2018 and May 2021. Over 1,000 enforcement notices were issued as a result of inadequate safety controls, health surveillance processes and respiratory protection. Air-monitory results confirmed at least 38 workplaces had silica dust level readings above the acceptable exposure standards.

What can WA workers do to reduce their exposure to silica dust at work?

  • Always wear a quality mask/breathing apparatus and ensure they are the correct fit. Have a beard? Remember that the seal of the respirator is less effective if worn over facial hair.
  • Always report unsafe practices to your employer, or health and safety representative. You can also anonymously report hazards and incidents to WorkSafe WA.
  • Get regular health checks. If you work in one of the industries listed above, it is important to notify your General Practitioner and have regular health checks.
    Read our blog: 3 things to tell your doctor
  • Talk to your employer about reducing your exposure to silica dust. If possible, reduce the frequency of your exposure to silica dust.

What should WA workers do if they think they have been exposed to silica dust at work?

If you come into contact with silica dust at work, it’s important that your exposure is recorded.

  • Tell your employer and notify your union representative (if you are a union member). You should also notify your GP so that they can perform a medical examination on you and if necessary, refer you for a chest x-ray, CT scan or lung function test.
  • Register your exposure on Maurice Blackburn’s National Register. If you develop a silica related disease in the future, there will be a record of your exposure.
  • If you’re diagnosed with – or are suspected of having – silicosis or any other lung or autoimmune disease you should immediately limit your exposure to silica dust and speak to your GP.

What entitlements do WA workers have if they are diagnosed with a silica-related disease?

If you have been exposed to silica dust as part of your work in Western Australia, and are diagnosed with a silica-related disease you may have entitlements under the Workers’ Compensation scheme. These entitlements include:

  • payment of reasonable medical and hospital expenses
  • travel related expenses to attend medical and treatment providers
  • a weekly pension if you are incapacitated for work as a result of your silica-relate disease
  • a lump sum compensation payment

What about other entitlements, like Superannuation and Disability Insurance Claims?

In addition to the above, you may also have benefits of Total and Permanent Disablement (TPD) and/or Income Protection under your Superannuation policy.

We can help with disease exposure claims

Our experienced lawyers have a long history of fighting for the rights of people suffering from asbestos, silica and other dust related illnesses. If you've been diagnosed with a dust disease, you may have a claim for compensation. 

It doesn't cost you anything to know where you stand 

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