Silicosis is a lung disease that can occur in people exposed to silica. Symptoms include coughing, phlegm and trouble breathing. If it progresses, symptoms can include fatigue, weight loss, chest pain and shortness of breath.
There is no cure for silicosis. However, symptoms can be managed using steroid inhalers and medication to relax the airways.
Silica is a mineral component of most rocks, including granite, shale and sandstone. Silica dust is so fine it can reach the smallest airways in your lungs. The silica particles make it harder to breathe by harming the lung tissue and causing inflammation and scarring. You are at higher risk if your work exposes you to silica dust. This includes jobs such as mining, steel working, construction/renovation, glass manufacturing, roofing and farming.
Silicosis cases in Australia are on the rise. Research conducted in 2019 estimated that there were 350 cases nationwide in December, 100 more than there were in September. This is largely due to the installation of artificial granite benchtops.
Unlike asbestos, silica can be handled safely in a formed state. Instead of banning silica, the Government has decided to regulate the silica industry and enforce strict safety protocols.
Silicosis is best prevented by not being exposed to silica dust at all. Employers and workplaces have a legal duty to manage and minimise risks when silica is involved. Commonly implemented measures include:
- Minimising the amount of silica present in construction
- Minimising worker exposure to silica-based tasks
- Automating jobs involving silica when possible
- Providing PPE to workers
Australia Develops Silicosis and Dust Disease Taskforce
To coordinate the Federal response to prevent and manage dust diseases like silicosis, the Government has established the Dust Disease Taskforce. The Government is providing $5 million to support the Taskforce. The Taskforce will carry out research into the prevention and treatment of silicosis and establish a National Dust Disease Register.
Free Health Checks for Queensland Mine and Quarry Workers
As part of the plan to implement safety standards around silica, the Queensland government has introduced free lung health checks for workers.
The free lung health checks will benefit the 15,000 QLD mineral miners and quarry workers. They will get free lung health checks for life, even after leaving the industry, to catch silicosis or other potential lung diseases early to minimise their impact. The check consists of an X-ray read by two radiologists and a lung function test.