Silicosis (respirable crystalline silica)

There have been reports in the media recently about the impact that the increased use of engineered stone products in kitchens and other household benchtops has had on workers in the stone benchtop cutting industry in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.

New engineered products may have up to 93% or higher crystalline quartz silica content compared to natural stone products (40% silica)1. Silica is found in many materials common on construction sites, including soil, concrete, masonry, rock, granite and landscaping materials. If your patient cuts, sands, drills, blasts or polishes materials which contain silica, or works near others performing these tasks, they may be exposed to silica dust.

If your patient works in an environment where they are exposed to silica dust, encourage them to speak to their employer about how they can reduce their exposure.

Silica dust is generated when materials containing silica are cut, sanded, polished, drilled or blasted. When this dust is inhaled into the lungs it can cause 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 to 10 years. All silicosis can be prevented by strict and appropriate work practices to control silica dust generation2.

Any worker who has worked with artificial stone, either now or in the past, should be assumed to have been exposed to silicia dust and undergo health screening, whether or not they have symptoms.

Silicosis health screenings

Free silicosis health screenings are currently being offered for affected South Australian workplaces by the Mining and Quarrying Occupational Health and Safety Committee (MAQOHSC). For more information on the silicosis health screenings, contact MAQOHSC on 08 8204 9842 or visit their website to read what their targeted program includes.

Diagnosis of silicosis is based on a comprehensive clinical and radiological assessment consisting of:

  • an occupational history with details of current and/or previous work sites, job tasks, use of personal protective equipment and exposure to silica dust
  • respiratory symptoms such as cough (productive or non-productive) and shortness of breath on exertion
  • a clinical examination, focusing on the respiratory system
  • lung function testing to Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) standards
  • an ILO chest x-ray to be read by an ILO qualified B reader
  • a high resolution CT scan of the chest.

ReturnToWorkSA is also working with SafeWork SA to share important information with the industry and is offering support services for workplaces affected by the silicosis health screenings.

Early detection and control of further exposure to silicosis is important and is likely to lead to better outcomes.

Support for your patient during silicosis health screenings

We understand that being tested for silicosis may make your patient worried or anxious about what this means for them and their family. We’re here to support them.

Free and confidential counselling is available to your patient, their family and workplace through one of our Employee Assistance Program providers. In addition to the one on one counselling sessions, your patient’s employer can arrange free onsite group education sessions which can cover issues such as anxiety around screening, fear of diagnosis and supporting each other. Information is available on our worker page.

Silicosis work injury claim

If your patient has been diagnosed with silicosis, they can contact us on 08 8233 2545 or email silicosis@rtwsa.com to start the claim. A specialist team within ReturnToWorkSA will work closely with them to assess and manage their claim and arrange the care and support to best manage their condition.

More information:

Further Resources

The Royal College of Physicians AFOEM and the Thoracic Society of Australia and NZ (TSANZ) have created public resources which are available online here

SafeWork Australia have released Health Monitoring Guidelines for Crystalline Silica available online which provides practical guidance about requirements under the WHS laws for health monitoring.