Silica dust is created when a material containing crystalline silica is cut, drilled or ground. The dust particles are small and difficult to see.
Silica is found in common materials like natural stone, sand, concrete and mortar. These materials are used to make composite or engineered stone for benchtops, and can also be found in tiles, bricks and some plastics.
Breathing in silica dust particles can cause diseases such as silicosis. Silicosis is a debilitating and incurable lung disease. It causes scarring of the lungs and advanced symptoms include chronic and severe breathlessness, chronic immobility, oxygen dependence and organ failure.
New modelling from Curtin University predicts 10,000 Australians will develop lung cancer in their lifetime from being exposed to silica dust, amid warnings more than half a million Australian workers are currently exposed to the harmful dust.
Engineered stone is a particularly potent source of silica dust, used in kitchen benchtops and found naturally in many building and construction products including sand, soil, stone, concrete and mortar, as well as being used in the manufacture of building products such as bricks, tiles and glass.
For the past 60 years, silicosis had been very rare in Australia but the increased use of engineered stone in kitchen benchtops is driving a re-emergence of the disease.
Achieving outcomes for our clients is always our focus, but we also work to prevent harm for all workers. We know we need stronger laws to reduce the level of harm caused to miners, tunnelers and workers who are exposed to sillica dust.
Delaying banning the importation and use of asbestos-containing materials had significant social and economic impacts on Australian workers and our society. A delay to banning engineered stone will have similar devastating impacts.
Controlling exposures starts at the workplace. Regulatory change is needed, including licencing schemes for engineered stone, regulation for processes including building, construction, tunnelling and mining.
Active oversight and enforcement of regulations is needed to prevent exposure, enable detection of disease, and review of effectiveness of interventions and support for ill workers.
Workers who are exposed to dust and develop silicosis and other related chronic illnesses currently have little long-term income support and health monitoring under the workers' compensation schemes. Many areas for improvement have been identified, which would provide financial stability for affected workers and their families.
Hear from some of our brave silicosis clients as they speak with Principal Lawyer, Jonathan Walsh, about their experience with silicosis and why they're helping to champion the fight for change.
Content warning: Information provided in these stories may be distressing for some viewers. Please navigate with care.
“I worked on the tools for a company doing kitchen benchtops, bathroom vanities and reception desks. 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.”
- Kyle, stonemason
"I worked at a quarry, I worked in admin and I did purchasing - so that would be purchasing safety equipment, PPE, anything for the plant. I would do all the safety meetings with my manager. I ran them all the time. I would do safety with neighborhoods... I was pretty disappointed that I had no idea that I was working environment that had crystalline silica dust everywhere... How did I not know about how bad crystalline silica dust is. No one in the Quarry knew what crystalline silica dust is."
- Jo, administration worker
"I was diagnosed with silicosis, and from the next progression of that I've got Progressive Massive Fibrosis, emphysema, silica-induced emphysema, and also I have rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune disease, which is connected to silicosis. My life before that was, you know, I was physically pretty strong and active. So this has progressed over many years, I didn't know I had it for years and years... I was on the zimmer frame at the end there before I had the [hip and knees] replacement, I was only 44 years old."
- Shane, tunnelling and mining
"The dust masks that were available weren't adequate, they were only paper filter. Some of the truck drivers had filtered masks, but most of the time when you were on the air leg, the sweat, the spray of the water coming back on you, the paper masks just weren't adequate to suppress the dust."
- Tony, miner
"My diagnosis is chronic silicosis. I only found out about silica in 2019. I worked as a stonemason for 17 years. In that time, my son has also done the stonemason trade. I tell him to be safe always, have your PPE on... Wash yourself down before you take your mask off. I am worried about my son working in the industry... the dust gets caught on your clothing, in your hair, and then you take it home with you... you can't work with it safe."
- Josh, stonemason
Our Canberra office is now closed, but our team continues to serve ACT clients and are available for phone and video appointments. If you need legal advice, please call us on 1800 675 346.
We have lawyers who specialise in a range of legal claims who travel to Tasmania. If you need a lawyer in Hobart, Launceston or elsewhere in Tasmania, please call us on 1800 675 346.