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Australia, Features, Industry News

How to prevent a stone-cold killer: Silicosis

There’s a killer at large and it’s targeting anybody working in Australian construction: silicosis. Related to the inhalation of fine silica dust, silicosis is responsible for causing an estimated 230 cases of lung cancer in Australian workers per year.

Silica is a widely abundant mineral that forms the major component of most rocks and soils. When workers cut, crush, drill, polish, saw or grind products that contain silica, dust particles, known as Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) are generated. These tiny particles can lodge deep in the lungs causing silicosis.

Over 600,000 Australian workers are exposed to RCS – a substance more deadly than asbestos.

Importantly, an upswing of silicosis cases over the last few years – connected to the increased use of manufactured stone – has prompted both government and industry bodies into action, including new codes for workplace conduct to protect workers.

According to Darren Gallagher, National Category and Sourcing Manager – Workplace Safety, Respiratory, and Fall Protection at Blackwoods, there is a high level of focus to address exposure to RCS within the construction industries.

“Which is why Blackwoods is committed to raising awareness about this disease, because many workers are at risk,” he stresses. “As awareness increases, there is one overwhelming message: silicosis can be fatal, but if the correct workplace procedures are followed, it is preventable.”

Gallagher’s point about awareness is aligned with key findings in the Dust Disease Research Update recently published by the National Dust Disease Taskforce. The report states that: “Increased awareness across the board, including among the general public, workers and healthcare professions will aid prevention.”

The same report also found that while stonemasons had high awareness of the risks of RCS (94 per cent), other tradespeople were not as aware (73 per cent). Moreover, more than 70 per cent of tradespeople surveyed for the report said their exposure to silica dust in the workplace was not completely under control, and one in three admitted that they cut corners when it came to dust safety.

As employers are subject to model Work, Health and Safety regulations, they must assess and evaluate RCS exposure levels in their respective workplaces to determine associated hazards and risks. Likewise, they must abide by the Workplace Exposure Standard (WES) for RCS which was reduced in December 2019 and has been implemented across all Australian state and territory regulators since November 2020.

Gallagher recommends construction businesses apply the Hierarchy of Control Process for RCS formulated by Greencap Australia, one of the country’s foremost risk management and compliance firms.

Hierarchy of Controls:

  1. Elimination

Use alternative product or process if possible.

  1. Substitution

Replace a product or chemical with something that is less hazardous and therefore has a lower risk.

  1. Isolation

Place physical barriers between the hazard and your workers-enclosed rooms, including distancing from work process, and keeping eating or changing areas away from work area.

  1. Engineering Controls

Application of controls such as on-tool (other) local exhaust ventilation (LEV), wet cutting, and the use of tools with dust.

  1. Administrative Controls

Have detailed Safe Work Method Statements, health monitoring and signage at the workplace highlighting dust hazards and requirements for using Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

  1. PPE (including RPE)

Availability of effective PPE/RPE and respirator fit-testing should be deployed.

A key component of WES compliance for RCS which is also in the above Hierarchy of Controls – as the last line of defence – is the use of RPE and the associated training for workers. Employers must also adhere to the Respiratory Protection Plan, a requirement of the Australia/New Zealand Standard (AS/NZS 1715) which covers personal respiratory protection and risk management in the workplace.

To assist employers in the construction industry, Gallagher points out that Blackwoods not only supply established brands for RPE and fit testing of RPE but have the expertise to advise on suitable solutions for customers’ applications and workplace.

Furthermore, he cites the recent edition of the Blackwoods Safety Spotlight publication, which includes a special feature on silicosis and its prevention.

“As part of our commitment to helping industry and individuals make informed decisions about their health and safety, we have included articles on silica dust in the Safety Spotlight magazine,” Gallagher says. “To continue the discussion and encourage businesses in the construction sector to also make silicosis prevention a priority.”

For more information on Blackwoods RPE, readers can visit here.

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