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Silicosis is an incurable lung disease that was typically found in stone cutters and miners throughout Australia from the early 20th century until the 1960s. It was during the 1960s ways to protect workers developed, and there was a dramatic drop in the number of cases of silicosis throughout the country.

The Australian medical community believed the disease silicosis no longer threatened the well-being of the nation’s workforce. However, recent findings reveal that there is a resurgence in cases of the disease.

Initial results of a recent study are in the May 15, 2017 issue of the Medical Journal of Australia. The report shows a new culprit at the root of recent cases of silicosis, dry cutting engineered stones.

Road worker with silicosis

 

Symptoms of Silicosis

Because the disease has symptoms seen in other illnesses, silicosis often goes undiagnosed for years. However, symptoms can often include:

  • Short of breath
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Decreased appetite
  • Respiratory distress

 

How Do Workers Contract Silicosis?

Silicosis develops from inhaling dust containing respirable crystalline silica, also known as RCS. This starts the following cycle:

  • Workers inhale the crystalline silica dust that they encounter on the job
  • The inhaled dust causes scar tissue to build as the tiny crystalline particles damage the lungs
  • Excessive scar tissue makes it difficult for the lungs to get oxygen from the air
  • The silica dust also becomes entrenched in the lungs often the dust settles in the alveolar sacs within the lungs
  • Alveolar sacs fill with the silica dust particles and cannot be cleared by coughing

 

Why Can’t Workers Avoid the Dust?

The dust is impossible to see in ordinary light, and those exposed to it are unaware of their contact with the silica dust until symptoms develop. Unfortunately, by the time a worker displays signs of the infection, it is too late to offer anything except for supportive medical care as the illness is incurable and deadly.

 

Who Usually Gets Silicosis?

Workers in many occupations come in contact with the crystalline silica dust on a regular basis. These jobs include:

  • Bridge and road repair
  • Drywalling
  • Crushing or chipping rock
  • Mining
  • Using abrasive blasting equipment
  • Removal of paint with high-powered tools
  • Grinding mortar
  • Manufacturing of metal and glass products
  • Sweeping crushed stone, concrete, or brick

 

Why Does Dry Cutting Engineered Stones Increase the Odds?

The engineered stones, which are made from crushed stone that is formed into sheets with adhesive, contain as much as 90% silica.

Traditional marble typically has a silica content of around 5%. Using the engineered stone on construction and renovation is extremely popular because it looks great and is cost effective.

By cutting the engineered stone while it is dry, workers create significantly more silica dust than wet stone. Because the danger of the dust is often unknown, workers tend to dry cut the stone.

 

The Three Types of Silicosis:

  1. Chronic Silicosis – This is the most common form of the disease. It attacks workers after many years of lower-level exposure to silica dust. Often those who have the illness suffer from various symptoms without knowing the cause of their misery. In some cases, lung transplants will save a chronic silicosis patient’s life.
  2. Accelerated Silicosis – Normally accelerated silicosis develops after five or ten years of high-level exposure to the dust. The faster onset typically creates a swift decline in the patient’s condition. Often patients must wear oxygen masks all day every day to maintain sufficient levels to function. As with chronic silicosis, a lung transplant is the only true solution to the disease.
  3. Acute Silicosis – Patients develop acute silicosis after exposure to excessively high levels of crystalline dust. Frequently, patients with the acute form of the disease will survive for several months before succumbing to silicosis.

 

What Should Employers Do to Reduce the Risk?

Every workplace where workers are at a high risk of silicosis needs to do everything possible to prevent exposure to crystalline silica dust.

Fortunately, there are some effective methods to protect workers from the dust that causes the deadly disease. These include:

  • Have proper exhaust ventilation near the source of the silica dust.
  • Eliminate the practice of dry cutting stone, especially engineered stone. Some states prohibit dry cutting, and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians calls for a uniform nationwide ban.
  • Wet materials to keep the dust from spreading throughout the work area.
  • Invest in tools that have dust collecting bags.
  • Train and enforce correct cleaning procedures and never permit cleaning a work area with a blower
  • Provide workers with sufficient protective gear including respirators specifically made to protect against exposure to crystalline silica dust.
  • Fit large pieces of machinery with individual filtration systems.
  • Arrange for regular employee screening for workers in high-risk professions.
  • Seek alternative materials
  • Provide the mandated workers’ compensation insurance

 

What Should I Do if I Think I May Have This Disease?

Let your employer know your suspicions and see a physician right away. Under the occupational safety and health (OSH) provisions, all employers with workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica must pay for health surveillance. This includes medical tests and services.

X-ray of lungs

If your medical practitioner diagnoses you with silicosis, you should file a workers’ compensation claim as soon as possible.

 

How Do I File a Workers’ Compensation Claim?

There are a series of steps involved in filing a workers’ compensation claim.

  • Ask your doctor for a Certificate of Capacity that shows your provisional diagnosis is silicosis
  • Fill out a workers’ compensation form
  • Give your employer your completed workers’ compensation form, your Certificate of Capacity, and any test results. Remember that your employer has five days to forward the claim to the insurance company

 

What Happens Next?

After filing your claim, you must see a respiratory specialist. You will also get a high-resolution CT scan as well as a standardised lung function test. The final decision about your workers’ compensation claim comes from the independent Industrial Diseases Medical Panel.

Cases of silicosis are on the rise throughout Australia. It is crucial for employers to have the correct workers’ compensation cover and to take the right steps to make sure employees are as safe as possible.

If you are an employer who is unsure about your workers’ compensation needs, feel free to get in touch with Connect Business Insurance. You will receive professional guidance and the peace of mind that comes from knowing you have the right cover.

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