Silica – exposure risk for engineered stone benchtop workers

Recently, silicosis claims have been made by workers in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria who have been doing work such as making and cutting engineered stone benchtops.

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

If you are concerned you have been exposed to silica dust, it is important that you consult your doctor as soon as possible to discuss your concerns. There is no cure for silicosis so early detection and control of further exposure is extremely important.

ReturnToWorkSA provides work injury insurance to employers in South Australia. If you are a wage earner your employer’s insurance with ReturnToWorkSA will cover you if you are diagnosed with silicosis.

If you are an employer, you are responsible for managing your workers’ risk of exposure to silica.

There have been reports in the media recently about the impact that the increased use of composite stone products in kitchens and other household benchtops has had on workers in the stone benchtop cutting industry.

New composite products may have up to 93% or higher crystalline quartz silica content compared to natural stone products (40% silica)1.

Silica dust is generated when materials containing silica are cut, sanded, drilled or blasted.  When this dust is inhaled into the lungs it causes silicosis, a disease which leads to scarring, swelling and fluid build-up in the lungs, interfering with a person’s ability to breathe.

While it usually takes decades of breathing in quartz containing dust to develop silicosis, accelerated silicosis can occur after exposure over 1 to 10 years, but usually 3 – 10 years. Accelerated silicosis is preventable with strict and appropriate work practices to control silica dust generation2.

Who is at risk?

Silica is found in many materials common on construction sites, including soil, concrete, masonry, rock, granite and landscaping materials. If you cut, sand, drill, blast or polish materials which contain silica, or you work near others performing these tasks, you may be exposed to silica dust.

Controlling the risks

To minimise your exposure to silica dust you should:

  • suppress dust with water
  • use appropriate air ventilation and extraction equipment
  • wear appropriate protective equipment including dust masks and air filters. Disposable paper dust masks are not effective.

A comprehensive list of ways to reduce exposure to silica dust is available on the SafeWorkSA website.

What to do if you are a worker

If you work in an environment where you are exposed to silica dust, speak to your employer about how you can reduce your exposure.  If you are concerned you have been exposed to silica dust, consult your doctor and ask for an assessment at a Thoracic Clinic.   Early detection and control of further exposure to silicosis is important and is likely to lead to better outcomes.

If you have been diagnosed with silicosis, our claims agents will work closely to arrange access to support and treatment to best manage your condition. To make it as easy as possible for you, your claim can be lodged over the phone if you have been diagnosed with silicosis.

Our claims agents contact details: Gallagher Bassett 1800 774 177, EML 1300 365 105. Use our claims agent look up if you are unsure who your claims agent is.

Useful links for workers:

What to do if you are an employer

You have a responsibility to manage your workers’ risk of exposure to silica dust and providing them with information, training, supervision and protective equipment and having a management plan in place to control exposure limits.

You are also responsible for monitoring the health on an ongoing basis of those who may be exposed to silica dust.

Useful links for employers:

1 Adelaide Exposure Science and Health, Engineered Stone Benchtops Projects Factsheet

2 https://www.racp.edu.au/advocacy/division-faculty-and-chapter-priorities/faculty-of-occupational-environmental-medicine/accelerated-silicosis/faqs