Health surveillance or health monitoring, is a requirement for any employer exposing their workers to hazardous substances in the course of work. Where there is risk to an individual’s health through potential exposure to crystalline silica, the employer has the responsibility of providing silica health monitoring at no cost to their employees.
Legal duties for employers
It is estimated that more than 230 lung cancer cases in Australia every year are caused by exposure to silica dust in the workplace. Silicosis is a preventable condition if the correct precautions are taken.
The recently released FAQs from DMIRS provides information for employers and employees about silica and some of the legal duties relating to protecting workers from developing silicosis.
WorkCover WA have recently released this Silicosis Fact Sheet outlining the process for making a compensation claim for workers with a provisional or confirmed diagnosis of silicosis. This includes the responsibility of insurers where a claim has been made.
What is silica health monitoring?
Exposure to crystalline silica dust can cause lung disease. Silica dust is so fine it can enter the deepest parts of the lungs. This dust can build up in the lungs causing scarring and stiffening which leads to silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema) and lung cancer.
Silica health monitoring for includes a range of assessments to measure the health or biological effects of this exposure on each individual. These should be conducted annually.
A silica health assessment includes:
- a lung function test, also known as spirometry
- health questionnaire
- exposure history
- workplace safe work practices review
- medical examination
- chest x-ray (ILO)* – baseline and 5 yearly
*chest CT scan is a more valuable tool and is recommended in place of CXR
The results are submitted to WorkSafe WA as part of your ongoing Health Monitoring program. Work Health Professionals will manage all of this for you.
Silica guidelines and resources
- Code of Practice “Concrete and Masonry Cutting and Drilling” 2019
- Guidance note “Safe stone product fabrication and installation – Protecting workers from silica exposure”
- WorkSafe and DMIRS WA “Silica FAQs”
The SWA Guide for Crystalline Silica health monitoring outlines the specific health assessments required for workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica.
Working with silica dust
Silica is highly toxic in dust form. Airborne or respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is 20 times more toxic than coal dust. The risks are not only to miners and quarry workers, but also to workers in construction, stone cutting and demolition work. Of concern, is the recently identified increasing incidence of silicosis among younger workers in the manufactured stone industry.
Silicosis is a disease that is 100% preventable if the correct safety measures are in place. This involves having adequate ventilation systems, installing dust capture systems on portable tools, wetting down stone, providing personal protective equipment such as masks and respirators, and not using compressed air to remove or clean-up settled dust.
In October 2018 WorkSafe QLD released a Guide to Safe Benchtop Fabrication and Installation to help employers in this Industry protect workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica. As well as ensuring safe working practices are in place, it recommends that businesses should:
- conduct regular air monitoring to confirm that crystalline silica dust is not exceeding the Australian Workplace Exposure Standard (see below), and
- provide health monitoring to workers.
Air monitoring for silica
A thorough examination has to be made of all work processes involving crystalline silica to identify those processes which are generating dust, and whether workers are being exposed to dust containing RCS. Managing the risk may require the PCBU or employer to measure worker’s dust exposure so that adequate controls can be put in place to protect the long-term health of the worker.
You may not be able to tell whether or not the exposure exceeds the Workplace Exposure Standard (WSE) as respirable dust is not visible to the naked eye, so monitoring for airborne contaminant levels may be required. At present, the WSE for crystalline silica is 0.1 mg/m3.
As a guide, regular unprotected exposure of workers > 0.5 WES is considered a significant risk requiring possible health monitoring.
Work Health Professionals can conduct silica air monitoring for you.
What is silicosis?
Up to 95 per cent of crystalline silica is present in the dry cutting of engineered stone. When workers are cutting slabs of engineered stone into shape, extremely high levels of fine silica dust can be generated. Once workers breathe in this toxic dust, they are at risk of developing silicosis.
Australia is now facing a public health crisis with silicosis now being identified too often in young trade workers, especially those working with and cutting stone. Workers across Australia are at risk of developing an aggressive, debilitating and potentially lethal respiratory disease due to unsafe work practices in the manufacture and installation of artificial stone, commonly used for kitchen, bathroom and laundry benchtops.
See 10th October 2018 announcement from the Royal Australian College of Physicians calling for urgent action by regulators to address a public health crisis impacting workers in the artificial stone benchtop industry.
When workers are cutting slabs of engineered stone into shape, extremely high levels of fine silica dust can be generated. Once workers breathe in this toxic dust, they are at risk of developing silicosis. Silica is highly toxic in dust form. Airborne or respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is 20 times more toxic than coal dust.
Symptoms of silicosis
Silicosis causes shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue and a severe cough. But symptoms often may not present in the early stages of the disease, so it can go undetected for years. There are three common types of silicosis:
- Chronic — occurs after at least 10 years of exposure
- Accelerated — results from higher exposure levels and 5-10 years of exposure
- Acute — develops from weeks or months of very high exposure
Silica health risks
Dusts containing respirable crystalline silica (RCS) in WA workplaces represents a long standing work health hazard. Crystalline silica dust particles are small enough to penetrate deep into the lung and may cause lung damage.
Exposure to silica dust causes many problems not only to miners and quarry workers, but also to workers in certain types of construction, stone cutting and demolition work, as well as those working in art rooms. Silica dust is so fine it can enter the deepest parts of the lungs. This dust can build up in the lungs and scar them – leading to a number of diseases.
Health risks from RCS exposure include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema), silicosis, lung cancer, and renal disease. These diseases have a long latency, usually appearing decades after the individual started being exposed.
Although cases of silicosis had decreased substantially over the last three to four decades, increases in mechanisation have resulted in potentially very high exposures in some workplaces and these types of respiratory diseases being back on the increase. Silica is classed as a Group 1 carcinogen (cancer causing compound) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
A number of epidemiologic studies from around the world have shown an increased risk for lung cancer among workers exposed to inhaled crystalline silica in the form of quartz.
Who is at most risk from silica dust?
Examples of work activities involving crystalline silica dusts that require special attention when assessing exposure include:
- stone masons, especially those working with engineered stone
- excavation, earth moving and drilling plant operations
- clay and stone processing machine operations
- paving and surfacing
- mining and mineral ore treating processes
- construction labouring activities
- brick, concrete or stone cutting, especially using dry methods
- abrasive blasting—blasting agent must not contain >1 per cent crystalline silica
- foundry casting
- Jack hammering, scabbling and chiselling of concrete.
- Cleaning up of dust and debris created by the above activities