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The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) has spoken up about the lack of worker protections included in recent reforms recommended by the government’s National Dust Disease Taskforce. The reforms are intended to reduce exposure to crystalline silica and silica dust, which are known to increase the risk of silicosis.

The proposed reforms have limited the scope of protections to only cover stonemasons. Quarry workers, miners, tunnellers, and those in the construction industry were left out of the silicosis reforms. The AWU worries that the government is allowing history to repeat itself, due to its slow response to the threat of asbestos.

Asbestos was officially banned in Australia in 2003, close to two decades after the threat of asbestos became widely understood. Asbestos exposure is linked to mesothelioma, which is a form of cancer. Hundreds of Australians continue to die from the disease each year.

As with asbestos, silica dust is a potentially dangerous substance with known health risks. Exposure to silica dust may cause bronchitis, lung cancer, and silicosis.

Existing Legislation on Silica Dust Exposure

Under the current Work Health and Safety (WHS) model regulations, businesses have a duty to manage risks to the health and safety of workers. This includes managing risks associated with silica. The duty includes the need to ensure that workers are not exposed to levels of crystalline silica that exceed the workplace exposure standard.

The existing workplace exposure standard (WES) for silica dust is 0.05 mg/m3 when averaged over eight hours. The current WES for silica dust was implemented in July 2020. It came after a review completed by the National Dust Disease Taskforce in 2019 and 2020.

The task force continued to research the effects of silica exposure and ultimately decided to issue its new recommendations. However, the AWU points out that the new reforms do not reduce exposure limits for the average worker, as they only apply to stonemasons.

The current standards are in line with several other nations, including the United States and Canada. It is also lower than the 0.1 mg/m3 limit in the United Kingdom (UK). Mexico and Portugal have the lowest limits, with a WES of just 0.025 mg/m3, which follows the latest industry standards. Companies that produce products containing crystalline silica often recommend keeping dust concentrations below 0.025 mg/m3 in their safety datasheets.

The risks of exposure to silica dust gained increased attention in Australia after the death of a stonemason in Queensland in 2019. The death came after a state government audit found that 98 workers in the stone industry had contracted silicosis.

The fabrication of installation of stone countertops is the leading source of silica dust exposure. However, the AWU points out that it impacts workers in a wide range of industries. You may be exposed to silica dust when tunneling, mining, or paving. Pottery making also exposes workers to silica. Clay and stone processing machines, hydraulic fracturing, foundry casting, and abrasive blasting also release silica dust. Many construction activities include the risk of exposure to silica.

What Is the Danger of Exposure to Silica Dust?

Silica is a natural mineral found in stone, sand, concrete, and mortar. It is also used to make composite stone for tiles and kitchen or bathroom counters. When these materials are crushed, cut, drilled, polished, sawn, or ground, they release dust particles into the air.

The dust particles from silica-containing products are called silica dust. The particles are small enough to become deeply lodged in the lungs, leading to scarring of the lungs. Breathing silica dust may also lead to lung cancer, scleroderma, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. However, one of the most common threats is silicosis.

Silicosis may be acute, accelerated, or chronic. Workers can contract acute silicosis after exposure to high levels of silica over a short period. The symptoms include severe inflammation and excess protein in the lungs.

Accelerated silicosis develops after exposure to moderate to high levels of silica dust over an extended period. Chronic silicosis occurs due to long-term exposure. It causes shortness of breath and additional scarring. All forms of silicosis are potentially deadly.

Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the dangers of silica dust until they contract it. The AWU aims to change the lack of awareness by addressing the lack of action from the federal government. The current legislation states that employers must monitor the air when exposing workers to potentially harmful levels of silica dust. However, the language in the laws is vague and not easily enforced.

The AWU Launches a Campaign to Protect Workers

Research suggests that about 6.6% of all Australian workers are exposed to silica dust each year. 3.7% of workers are heavily exposed. One study found that close to one in five people exposed to silica eventually contract silicosis.

Over 350 Australians were diagnosed with silicosis in 2019. The numbers likely declined in 2020 due to the pandemic. However, without action, Australian workers will continue to potentially fatal exposure to silica.

Due to the potential threat of silicosis, the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) launched a campaign aimed at raising awareness and encouraging stricter health and safety regulations. They also want to extend the regulations to all workers, instead of limiting it to stonemasons.

Additional recommendations from the AWU include establishing a compensation fund and health monitoring program for silica sufferers and tougher penalties for breaching WHS laws related to silica exposure.

Hundreds of Australians are diagnosed with silicosis each year. The AWU hopes that the “Silica Kills” campaign can bring these numbers down through tighter regulations on exposure to silica dust.

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