Spike in silicosis sparks safety investigation

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt is requesting state workforce bodies launch an immediate investigation into unsafe work practices amidst a new wave of silicosis cases.

A spokesperson for Minister Hunt said the Minister and Chief Medical Officer will raise this issue at a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) health meeting with state and territory health ministers today (Oct 12) in Adelaide.

The meeting will discuss the potential benefit of exploring the development of a national dust diseases register.

Last month, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ) and WorkCover Queensland reported a sudden spike in the number of confirmed cases of silicosis.

“To date, WorkCover Queensland has received 26 workers’ compensation claims for silicosis,” said Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace.

Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said, “Silica is highly toxic in dust form. Airborne crystalline silica is 20 times more toxic than coal dust.”

“When workers are cutting slabs of engineered stone into shape, extremely high levels of fine silica dust can be generated. Once workers breath in this toxic dust, they are at risk of developing silicosis.”

Silica is commonly found in rocks, sands, concrete, mortar and cement-based materials. Up to 95 per cent of silica is present in the dry cutting of engineered stone.

WorkCover Queensland has called for an immediate action by employers to prevent workers’ exposure to silica. Additionally, WHSQ has conducted a compliance campaign to uncover unsafe work practices, which include cases of poor ventilation of work areas and a lack of personal protection equipment (PPE).

“Reduction in dust exposure is an important occupational health responsibility for employers,” said the spokesperson for the Minister in a statement.