OXYGEN FILES: The property market love affair with stone benchtops for bathrooms and kitchens is proving deadly for hundreds of Australian workers. Silicosis rates are rising so fast that Queensland now has a shortage of stonemasons. Too many are disabled or have died due to silicosis, which is caused when microscopic particles of silica dust are inhaled during cutting and grinding of engineered stone. Some workers have left the industry, hoping it’s not too late to save their lungs and lives.
Engineered stone is the main culprit being discussed by workplace safety authorities because of the links revealed between engineered stone workers and the sudden spike in diagnoses, but any construction material that contains crystalline silica can be a risk.
Silica is the main component of sand and can exist also in significant quantities in clay products. This means cutting, drilling, grinding, polishing and demolishing concrete, pavers, bricks, tiles, asphalt and other materials without proper protective equipment can create a terminal health risk for workers.
Despite there being a ban in place in Queensland in relation to dry cutting of engineered stone, and despite national workplace health and safety (WHS) guidelines around reducing the risks of silica dust exposure, an audit of stonemason workshops by Worksafe Queensland found multiple instances where workplace hazards were not being effectively managed.
NSW a black spot
In NSW, the situation appears to be even worse, with no effective oversight, regulation or enforcement of safety requirements for those working with engineered stone products.
Dr Graham Edwards, a member of the national taskforce on silicosis and other dust diseases and an occupational physician, told 7.30 Report last month the number of workers diagnosed with silicosis is going to rise.
“We’re talking in the hundreds, some will die within 12 months, some will die within five years,” he said.
Lack of information about the statistics for NSW means the problem could be much worse than current data shows.
“We still don’t have any real visibility about what is happening in NSW,” he told 7.30 Report.
“We know that there is end-stage disease in NSW but we just don’t know the quantity of cases.”
Lack of government monitoring at the state and federal level was singled out as a key contributing factor.
“Every single case of silicosis is prima facie evidence of system failure,” Dr Edwards said.
“There was legislation already in existence to manage it but, clearly, it failed the workers of Australia.”
Victoria faces facts
The Victorian government has announced a ban on dry cutting of engineered stone as part of a suite of measures to address what some industry sources are calling “the next asbestos”.
The regulations mean employers must now ensure power tools are not used to cut, grind or abrasively polish engineered stone unless on-tool water suppression or dust extraction devices are in place and respiratory protection is used.
WorkSafe Victoria received 55 claims for silica-related conditions in the 2018-19 financial year and 15 workers have died from the disease since 1985.
As part of its action plan, free health screenings have been offered to the state’s 1400 stonemasons, and a compliance blitz of workplaces will be undertaken. Education seminars are also being held across the state.
At the time of the announcement last month, 232 stonemasons had commenced the health screening, with 73 out of 98 who had completed it referred for further tests. Twenty workers tested positive for silicosis out of the 98 – which represents around one in five workers who have been screened being handed a medical death sentence.
Like mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos exposure, silicosis cannot be cured. The tiny particles of crystalline silica lodge deep in the lungs and once the damage starts, the only fix is potentially a full lung transplant. In some cases, it is only a matter of months between diagnosis and death.
No safe levels
The other aspects of crystalline silica that make it problematic are the particulate matter (PM) 2.5 crystal dust molecules are so small, they cannot be seen, and they can persist in the air of a worksite. The crystalline silica dust can also become airborne from workshop floors or other areas from movements of people and equipment, so it is not only the workers handling the stone who are at risk. The forklift driver in a stonemason’s yard is also at risk, for example.
Medical experts say there is no safe level of exposure to crystalline silica dust – just as they say about friable asbestos – and some states are pushing for a tightening of the current national WHS standard for exposure.
Victoria is campaigning nationally to reduce the Australian silica workplace exposure standard to 0.02 mg/m3 over an eight-hour day. Safe Work Australia is reviewing its exposure level recommendation of 0.1 mg/m3 (eight hour time weighted average).
But why wait for legislation when there are already ways risks can be reduced?
According to Safe Work Australia (SWA) and the Hierarchy of Controls, the best way is to remove the risk and substitute where possible for safer products – timber benchtops, for example, or composite stone with a lower percentage of silica compared with about 90 per cent in most commonly used products.
Other tactics SWA recommends include:
- Isolating the hazard – designing workplaces for safety by having specific areas for dust-generating tasks and using enclosures and automation to carry out the tasks
- engineering controls, such as local exhaust ventilation, wet-cutting techniques that supress dust or using tools with dust-cutting attachments
- better administrative controls, including good housekeeping policies, shift rotations and modified cutting sequences
- supplying and enforcing the use of personal protective equipment, including appropriate respiratory equipment.
Another red flag
October is Safe Work Month, and there’s another feature particularly common on multi-residential building sites that has been flagged as an area of major concern – scaffolding.
SafeWork NSW has been carrying out an inspection blitz on both Sydney metropolitan and regional construction sites since April and found almost half the sites were unsafe.
Minister for Better Regulation and Innovation, Kevin Anderson, said more than 700 sites were visited, resulting in 832 notices being issued for safety breaches and $109,000 worth of on-the-spot fines imposed for fall risks.
“While inspectors have seen some improvement in scaffold safety recently, the level of risk is still unacceptable, with 44 per cent of scaffolds having missing parts, while on 36 per cent of sites it appeared unlicensed workers had altered or removed scaffolding components,” Anderson said.
Those figures are appalling, especially given falls are known to be the construction industry’s most common cause of death and injury.
Surely, the memory of the death of 18-year old Christopher Cassaniti earlier this year would have caused the industry to make it a priority to get scaffolding right.
Cassaniti’s mother Patrizia is now campaigning for “Christopher’s Law”, a suite of regulations that would include making industrial manslaughter an offence nationally and punishable with jail time.
The offence only exists in Queensland and the ACT, something she aims to change.
“Safety issues must be addressed at a national rather than state level,” she told Denise Cullen in an article Cullen wrote for the National Safety Council of Australia bulletin.
“Why should a life be worth less in Sydney, say, than it is in Canberra?”
Cassaniti believes many workers do not report safety risks due to fear of being sacked or penalised. One of the proposals under Christopher’s Law is protection for safety whistle blowers and requiring all construction sites to have a workplace health and safety manager or representative who is independent of the builder or head contractor.
Food for thought
Even when a building is completed and commissioned, many of us do not feel safe or well within it. In August, the ACTU released the results of a survey of more than 26,000 Australian workers that showed nearly 80 per cent of those workers had experienced either injury or illness as a result of their work in the past 12 months.
Let that figure sink in for a minute – nearly four out of every five Australians who work suffer because of it.
And almost 80 per cent of those surveyed believe the current penalties imposed on employers who do not provide a safe workplace are an insufficient deterrent.
In the Work Shouldn’t Hurt research, workers reported being physically assaulted (punched, and kicked), being held hostage by a patient, or being crushed, electrocuted, or burnt at work, among other things. Others said they had broken major bones or had been left traumatised or depressed by work conditions.
The rise in mental/psychological injuries has been flagged as especially alarming, with three out of five respondents saying they had experienced psychological illnesses or injuries such as stress, depression or anxiety at work.
Sixteen per cent knew someone who had been either killed or died from a work-related disease; 31 per cent had experienced occupational violence (abuse, threats, or assault at work by clients, customers, the public or co-workers); and 47 per cent reported they were exposed to traumatic events, distressing situations or distressed or aggressive clients/customers.
Despite these startling numbers, many employers are not taking any protective action, with 61 per cent of those surveyed saying they had experienced poor mental health because their employer or workplace had failed to manage or address poor work conditions.
More champions needed
Just as turning the tide on sustainability in the workplace required champions, so does improving the safety of our workplaces, whether they are offices, schools, shops, hotels or construction sites.
That’s the theme of this year’s National Safe Work Month – Be a Safety Champion.
Alongside physical risks, psychological health and wellbeing is very much on the agenda, and Safe Work Australia has produced a range of useful resources anyone can use in their workplace to spread the safety message.
The ultimate goal of workplace safety is simple – everyone goes home safe and uninjured, every day.
More useful resources:
- Safe Work Australia – Guide to Work-related psychological health and safety: A systematic approach to meeting your duties
- Heads Up and Beyond Blue Guide to a Mentally Healthy Workplace
- ComCare – risk identification and mitigation platform – Virtual Workplaces