Victorian government protects workers from silica dust with new measures

The Victorian government will launch a compliance and enforcement blitz targeting more than 300 high-risk workplaces, focussing on stonemasonry workshops to prevent the deadly lung disease silicosis.

Silicosis is a potentially fatal and irreversible lung diseases caused by breathing in minute dust particles. Many common construction materials contain silica, including asphalt, brick, concrete, and grout.

Miners, manufacturers, and construction workers are traditionally prone to the disease from working in their chosen field. Stonemasons are at higher risk due to the cutting and polishing of artificial stone bench-tops which contain high concentrations of silica.

The comprehensive action plan, unveiled by Premier Daniel Andrews and Minister for Workplace Safety, Jill Hennessy, includes a state-wide ban on uncontrolled dry cutting of materials that contain crystalline silica dust, free health screening for Victoria’s 1400 stonemasons, a tough new compliance code for businesses working with silica, and an awareness campaign to highlight the risks of working with engineered stone.

Andrews said Victorians have a right to expect their work won’t kill them. “We’re doing all we can to make sure workers go home safe to their families.”

Banning dry cutting of materials containing crystalline silica will reduce the risk of workers developing silicosis as wet cutting reduces the likelihood of harmful exposure to silica dust, according to the government.

Hennessy said silicosis has had a debilitating effect on too many tradies in their prime – our ban on dry cutting and an unprecedented blitz will help protect Victorian workers.

The Labor government is set to develop a national silicosis strategy and reduce the Australian silica workplace exposure standard from 0.1mg to 0.02mg over an eight-hour day.

WorkSafe has received more than 28 claims for silica-related conditions in 2018 where 15 workers have died from the disease since 1985.

WorkSafe is also set to review the list of proclaimed diseases for stonemasons and those working with engineered stone with a view to adding lung cancer and auto-immune diseases that can occur from silica exposure.

Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos said accelerated silicosis can have significant health implications and can be fatal. “Nobody should have their health put at risk just by going to work.”

The government will also hold a summit for general practitioners and medical specialists, and education seminars for those in the stonemasonry industry and health sector in August.

With cutting of materials, and cleaning of products and surfaces, exposure to silica can be heightened. This is why companies such as Kärcher Australia ensure its sweepers help keep workers safe.

Kärcher Australia sales and marketing director Lucas Paris highlights the importance of implementing a cleaning process that is thorough, but does not necessarily cost employees more time or effort.

“Cleaning is integral. But most importantly, it is necessary from a safety perspective. There’s a lot of talk now around silica dust and health issues that weren’t as prevalent 10-15 years ago.”

Paris told Manufacturers’ Monthly that with more and more people getting sick from silica dust, there is a need for cleaning equipment that manages the circulation of these airborne contaminants.

“We make sure our products are designed from that perspective. When we are dealing with manufacturing facilities, we are aware there is a lot of dust coming through. That helps form the crust of our engineering. We’ve had to design our products to ensure they are capturing more and more dust,” he said.