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Relatively little is known about the problem of silicosis in New Zealand, but data from around the world suggests construction workers, and workers in the stone bench top industry may be at risk from this disease. What is it, and how can you take steps to protect your workers from it?

What is silicosis?

Silicosis is a progressive and permanent lung disease. It is caused by the inhalation of respirable crystalline silica (RCS). RCS is composed of tiny dust particles which are created when material containing silica is disturbed through activities such as cutting, grinding, drilling, and sanding. Numerous materials contain silica including stone, rock, concrete, brick, mortar, and plaster.

People who work in the stone bench top industry are particularly at risk. Stone worktops have become an increasingly popular interior design choice for bathrooms and kitchens, but the silica content of engineered stone is very high at approximately 90% (compared to natural stones at around 2%). Worktops are completely harmless once completed, but the process of creating them can produce RCS. Inhalation of just a small amount of RCS can be enough to cause damage, and can lead to silicosis or lung cancer.  

The damage silicosis causes is irreversible. There is no cure, and the only treatment for the disease in its advanced form is a lung transplant. Troublingly, the disease is often symptomless in the early stages.

International experience

Concern is rapidly growing internationally about the risks of exposure to RCS and the long term health effects associated with it:

Australia

  • By February 2019, there were 99 confirmed cases of silicosis associated with engineered stone bench top work in Queensland.
  • Australian law firm Slater and Gordon is preparing a national class action lawsuit against the major manufacturers of engineered stone bench top products.
  • Safe Work Australia has published a 32-page guide designed to help duty holders understand the risks posed by exposure to RCS and silica dust in the workplace and how best to manage and protect the health and safety of workers.

United Kingdom

  • The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that approximately 500 to 1000 people in the United Kingdom die annually from exposure to RCS, and a cancer burden study by the HSE found that exposure to silica was second only to asbestos as a cause of occupational lung cancer deaths.
  • A parliamentary enquiry has been launched to investigate and better understand the impact that silicosis is having on the health of construction workers in the United Kingdom. One of the aims of this enquiry is to assess the financial burden that silicosis is placing on the National Health Service when treating those affected by the disease.

What does this mean for New Zealand?

No one knows how common silicosis is in New Zealand. Doctors suggest this is caused by a general lack of awareness and not knowing to look out for the disease, rather than it not being an issue in this country. On the contrary, estimates by some doctors suggest that over 1000 New Zealanders could be affected.

In July and August this year WorkSafe New Zealand issued a safety alert and then additional guidance material to raise awareness about the serious health and safety risks posed by exposure to silica and how these should best be managed at work. Key recommendations include:

  • Use natural stone rather than engineered or artificial stone where possible.
  • Use equipment and machinery with good dust control and dust collection systems.
  • Reduce exposure by scheduling high-risk work for times when there are fewer workers around.
  • Provide workers with suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) and ensure it is used and stored correctly.
  • Ensure workers leave any dust covered PPE at work for cleaning in a safe manner, and do not take them home.
  • Ensure workers wash their hands after working in dusty environments.

Businesses involved in any work with silica products should complete a risk assessment before starting work that may create an exposure to RCS. Uncontrolled dry cutting, grinding, or polishing of engineered stone should be entirely eliminated and safer alternatives used instead. Workplace exposure and health monitoring should also be considered and implemented to properly understand the risk of ongoing exposure in work activities.

If you work with silica or have any concerns about how to manage these types of risks in your business, our health and safety lawyer, Grant Nicholson and his team will be happy to help.

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