Silicosis crisis in stonemasons prompts government promises of action

Public health

By Mardi Chapman

16 Oct 2018

Health minister Greg Hunt

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt

Federal, state and territory health ministers have agreed to further investigate the creation of a national dust diseases register in response to concerns about the re-emergence of silicosis in Australian workplaces.

Sustained media attention, culminating in last week’s report on the ABC’s 7.30 program, put the issue on the table at the COAG Health Council meeting in Adelaide on Friday, 12 October.

In a doorstop interview after the meeting, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt acknowledged there was a need to move quickly.

“Our approach is to immediately write to Safe Work Australia and to get the medical experts working on a national registry. These two things are the critical steps and we have taken them with the support of the states and territories today.”

The meeting noted that the Australian Standard for crystalline silica was set decades ago and a review of the existing state-based laws and standards was warranted given the increasing number of cases associated with fabricated stone bench tops.

As reported in the limbic last week, respiratory physicians have been aware of the emerging problem for at least the last three years.

In light of health surveillance findings in Queensland that about one in three workers in the industry were affected, the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) have called for:

  • Respiratory health assessments of all workers (past and present) in the industry
  • An urgent review of the dust control measures used in the industry, including independent monitoring of dust levels
  • Comprehensive enforcement of hazardous substances regulations related to silica dust exposure
  • Enforcement of an immediate prohibition on dry cutting techniques
  • A national occupationally acquired respiratory disease surveillance and registry program.

Unlike natural stone such as granite which is about 30% silica, artificial stone materials typically contain over 90% silica.

High levels of exposure due to incorrect handling of the material, poor ventilation of workplaces and inadequate personal protection has lead to an accelerated form of silicosis, different to that seen historically in the mining industry.

FAQs on accelerated silicosis are available on the RACP website.

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