Aussie Stonemasons Dying from Silicosis

Source: photografier - 123RF

Colin Fluxman reports from Melbourne, Australia.

Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC, reports that stonemasons who cut engineered stone into a popular type of kitchen benchtop are contracting accelerated silicosis at alarming levels, after being exposed to unsafe levels of silica dust.

Silicosis is an incurable and often fatal lung disease caused by breathing dust-containing fragments of crystalline silica.

Engineered stone can contain up to 90 percent silica, much higher than the content in granite or marble.

The Queensland Government has issued an urgent warning to the engineered stone benchtop industry after 22 silicosis claims were lodged to WorkCover (Worker’s Comp) in the last three weeks, including six people who were diagnosed as terminal.

Brisbane-based senior occupational physician Dr Graeme Edwards, who has been involved in the health screening of the workforce, and predicts there will be another dramatic spike in cases, told  ABC News that almost one in three workers tested so far in Queensland showed signs of silicosis. “I’m expecting another 300 cases in Queensland by December alone,” he said.

In the past three financial years, in Victoria, there have been 16 silicosis claims by stonemasons, and in NSW there were 23 total silicosis claims, some by stonemasons.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand, are calling for other states and territories to urgently follow Queensland and conduct health screening of all past and present workers.

They want respiratory health assessments of all past and present workers, independent monitoring of dust levels, stronger enforcement of regulations and an immediate ban on dry cutting.

A pilot audit by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland which began at the end of last year investigated 10 work sites in Queensland. Investigators discovered “extremely poor” work practices including uncontrolled dry-cutting, inadequate ventilation, limited masks, and protective equipment.

The Australian Federal Government told ABC News 7.30  that Safe Work Australia is “already working with the states and territories to progress initiatives to address exposure to respirable crystalline silica in the workplace”.