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Stone benchtops are the latest must-haves in kitchens across Australia. But few know about the risks involved to the tradespeople preparing these benchtops.

Kyle Goodwin, 36, worked as a stonemason for 10 years before discovering he had silicosis.

“I worked on the tools for a company doing kitchen benchtops, bathroom vanities and reception desks,” he said.

“I initially got tested after one of my apprentices said he got tested and he had it. I had been working in the industry longer than him, so I got tested and the result was positive.

“I was given five to eight years to live.”

What is silicosis?

Silicosis is a debilitating and incurable lung disease caused by breathing in silica dust. Silica is found in natural stone, sand, concrete and mortar. It is used to make composite or ‘engineered’ stone for benchtops, as well being found in bricks, tiles and some plastics.

Silicosis causes scarring of the lungs and in some cases, progressive massive fibrosis in the lungs. In the end stages of the disease, people with silicosis are unable to breath and gradually suffocate to death.

It is a preventable disease, but there has been a dramatic spike in cases with a particularly high number of young men in their 20s and 30s.

Silicosis was common in Australia in the 1940s to 1980s, particularly in men working in construction, demolition and mining. However, growing awareness of the disease and how to prevent it by wearing face masks and monitoring air quality reduced the number of cases.

The resurgence of cases is being blamed on the popularity of natural stone and engineered stone benchtops.

Who does it impact?

Stonemasons are overrepresented in the number of people diagnosed with silicosis, but they aren’t the only ones.

There are increasing rates in other industries in which silica dust is a problem. Anywhere where rock dust is created and that dust has some content of silica in it, silicosis is definitely a risk to that particular worker.

This could include anyone exposed to silica dust working in excavation, mining, quarrying, tunneling, abrasive blasting and brick, concrete or stone cutting.

Silicosis symptoms

Symptoms of silicosis include coughing, shortness of breath and tiredness. But, in the early stages of the disease, there may be no symptoms and it may go undetected for months or even years.

For Kyle, his diagnosis explained why he had struggled with exercise.

“I was training in the gym, doing a bit of martial arts and working out with friends, but I was never able to get as fit as them,” he said.

“I could never get as cardio fit and I was running out of breath on runs.

“But the biggest toll my diagnosis took was mentally. It changed my whole outlook on life.”

What should you do if you suspect you are at risk of silicosis?

Kyle advises getting out of the industry or at the very least, ensuring employers provide quality breathing apparatus.

The first place to start is with a GP check up, said Jonathan.

“If you’ve got concerns, go to your GP,” he said.

“Inform them of your occupational exposure and then get referred for a chest x-ray or CT scan at the very least. That should start the process to determine whether you have a problem with lung disease.”

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