Silicosis; what you need to know, and do, to prevent it

There is good reason for the increased attention in the news over the past few months about the lung disease Silicosis. Not to be taken lightly, the disease has afflicted a number of people in a wide range of industries throughout Australia and around the world, and has even caused death.


Certainly, it is time for businesses in the mining, tunnelling, quarry and stonemasonry industry to get a clear understanding of their legislative obligations, as soon as possible. There are many practical actions you can take now to start working towards preventing this disease in your workplace.


A great starting point is to first learn about the nature of the disease, in terms of the hazards and risks, which predispose workers to the condition. It is important to understand that silicosis is entirely preventable.



What is silicosis?

Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing tiny airborne particles of silica – also known as silica dust – into the lungs.


As the particles are inhaled they have the potential to penetrate and scar the lung tissue, causing it to become stiffer over time dependent on the duration of exposure and intensity of silica exposure (in terms of the workplace). This prevents the lungs from transferring oxygen into the blood stream properly and can lead to a number of health impacts, including irreversible lung damage, autoimmune disease and premature death.


Yet silicosis is a very varied disease, with different levels of risks and health complications. It can develop after a few weeks or even up to a few years after exposure to silica dust. Indeed, different types of silicosis – such as acute silicosis, accelerated silicosis, or chronic silicosis – all develop in different ways and exhibit different symptoms.



The risk of developing silicosis – with faster progression – increases as the intensity of exposure intensifies.



Additionally, it should be noted that there are a variety of other diseases and health conditions related to exposure to silica, such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer and tuberculosis.


It is important to remember that there are often no symptoms at all in the early stages of the disease. So, it’s not wise to believe that simply because no one is coughing, everything is fine.


Over time, shortness of breath and coughing are signs of the disease, or another related disease as listed above, may be developing. This can continue to deteriorate over time, impacting a person’s ability to work, perform simple and low impact activities of daily living and to breath at all.



Who is at risk?

Silica dust finds its way into the lungs of workers in a variety of industries, as they perform many of the most common and everyday tasks related to those job roles.


Cutting, grinding, crushing, drilling, sawing, excavating, chiseling, paving, surfacing, polishing… if you use any of these types of words to describe what you or your workers do, it might be time to consider the risks associated with silica dust in your workplace.


You might think of those cutting artificial stones first following the media attention, or people working in mining. Certainly people in these industries are at risk. Yet, consider other industries that regularly perform these tasks that you may not think of initially – landscaping, building, stone masonry, or pottery and ceramics.


Clearly, the possibility of silica dust affecting the workforce can be widespread across more than one industry.



Where can silica be found?

Make no mistake, this issue is not only related to workers that cut composite stone for a living. Silica is found in all kinds of stone – natural or otherwise – concrete, mortar, brick, tilers and some plastics.


Despite what many people think, silica (SiO2) is actually a naturally occurring mineral. It is the main component of sand and 95% of natural rock. But it is also used to make a variety of artificial or engineered stone products.


The significant hazards and risks associated with manufacturing and/or working with artificial or engineered stone is the high crystalline silica content (i.e. greater than 85%).


The table below lists the common stone products and their typical crystalline silica content.

Reconstituted stone (eg, Caesarstone, Quantum Quartz, Smartstone)More than 90%
Sandstone70% to 90%
Granite25% to 40%
Slate20% to 40%
MarbleLess than 5 %

Source: WorkSafe Victoria



Practical controls you can put in place

Silicosis is an entirely preventable disease. As such, the controls and measures that each of us put in place in our workplaces have the potential to make significant positive impact to ensure that this disease does not continue to impact Australian morbidity and/or mortality rates in the workforce.


Prevention is key. Starting at the top of the hierarchy of controls, here is some practical advice:

SubstitutionSource composite stone with a lower percentage of crystalline silica
IsolationEnclose areas with dust generating tasks and implement suitable extraction systems that reduce dust exposure in the workplace. Use automation where possible.

Minimise the risk of exposure to generated silica dust, with local exhaust ventilation, water suppression (wet cutting), and/or using the correct tools which have inbuilt extraction and water generating capacity.

Should a risk still remain after implementing substitution, isolation, and engineering controls, consider;
AdministrationEnsure site rules, policies and procedures are suitable and appropriately implemented and managed in your workplace – consider shift rotations and effective training and induction processes.
PPEEnsure that all personal protective equipment is fit for purpose; respiratory equipment (minimum of a P2 efficiency half face respirator) with fit-test processes in place and work clothing that either does not collect dust, or is appropriately laundered or disposed of in the workplace.


Additionally, regular and thorough dust monitoring and worker health surveillance is an important and critical part of the process.


Action OHS Consulting Pty Ltd can support businesses to identify the degree of the problem in their workplace(s) and support the contextualisation of suitable and appropriate risk control measures to address the hazards and risks in the workplace.


Plus, WorkSafe Victoria has compiled some invaluable resources with industry-specific advice about Silicosis. Have a read: https://www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/crystalline-silica


What are your legal responsibilities?

It goes without saying that as an employer, you must provide a safe workplace. What does this involve?

  • Appropriate pre-employment checks;
  • Health surveillance for workers with potential exposure to silica dust;
  • Worker consultation and communication;
  • Implementation, monitoring and review of suitable and appropriate risk controls in accordance with the hierarchy of controls and contextually relevant to the specific hazards and risks in the relevant workplace.




Victorian Amendments 

In Victoria, the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 were amended 20 August 2019 to provide greater protection to Victorian employees working with engineered stone.

Engineered stone as manufactured composite stone that contains resins and has a crystalline silica content of at least 80 per cent. Engineered stone is commonly used as kitchen, bathroom and laundry bench tops.

These amendments now prohibit uncontrolled cutting, grinding and abrasive polishing of engineered stone with power tools.

What does this really mean?

It means that all controls must be properly designed, installed, used and maintained so they stay effective at reducing exposure to crystalline silica dust.

What are the controls you must be across?

  1. Under the amended regulations, it does not matter if you are an employer, self-employed person or person who manages or controls a workplace must ensure a power tool is not used to cut, grind or abrasively polish engineered stone, unless the tool:
  • has an integrated water delivery system that supplies a continuous feed of water (on-tool water suppression). Note: A hand held hose (or other hand held water delivery device) to direct water at the cutting point is NOT considered to be an ‘integrated water delivery system’. An integrated.
  • is fitted with on-tool extraction attached to a HEPA filtered dust class H vacuum cleaner (or similar system that captures the dust generated).

If these controls are not reasonably practicable, the use of power tools must be controlled through local exhaust ventilation (LEV).

  1. It also means that people cutting, grinding or polishing engineered stone with a power tool must be provided with respiratory protective equipment that:
  • is designed to protect the wearer from the inhalation of airborne contaminants entering the nose, mouth and lungs
  • complies with AS/NZS 1716 – Respiratory protective devices.

Air and health monitoring – yes or no?

Employers continue to have an obligation to carry out air monitoring if they are not sure if their employees are exposed to levels of silica dust that are above the exposure standard – i.e. 0.02 mg/m3 a time-weighted average (TWA) airborne concentration over 8 hours.

With respect to this monitoring, employers should carry it out on a regular basis to ensure employee exposure is controlled.

Employers should carry out health monitoring in all workplaces there is exposure to airborne silica, unless air monitoring data shows that exposure is less than 0.02 mg/m3 as a time-weighted average (TWA) airborne concentration over 8 hours.

If you don’t comply?

If you are not able to comply with the requirements for cutting, polishing or abrasively polishing engineered stone with power tools, the work cannot be done. Failing to control risks of dry processing may be a criminal offence.

If you require assistance

You should call us. As a Victorian-based Health and Safety Consulting business, we have the knowledge and capability to support you manage your regulatory needs. If you are a business with less than 60 workers, the OHS Essentials Program is something you should consider to ensure that you remain knowledgeable about silica and your legislative duty. Register your interest here.


8 big safety considerations for the Work Christmas Party

In most legal contexts, the work Christmas party is considered part of the work environment. Do you know what that means? Yes, the workplace continues to have a duty to provide a safe work environment.

Indeed, employers have been held liable under both the health and safety legislation, and the workers compensation legislation for incidents that have happened at work Christmas parties.

Whilst recognised as a time to celebrate, it is also a time your organisation should consider and manage the risks involved.

Contact Us to find out more about incidents that have resulted from workplace parties and events


Eight of the big ones to consider

Listed below are eight workplace health and safety considerations, which may help you to manage some of the more common health and safety hazards associated with your upcoming end of year celebration. 


1. Risk assess.

Involve your Health and Safety Representatives or Health and Safety Team in the event planning. Document a OHS risk assessment that identifies all foreseeable health and safety hazards and their defined control/s. Your safety risk assessment should consider an inspection of the site prior to the event. No Health and Safety Representatives or Health and Safety Team? That’s fine, just ensure that health and safety is a consideration of the team planning the event. How could people get hurt? Then, what can we do to prevent this.


2. Remind your employees of your expectations.

In the days prior to the Christmas event, remind staff (by email or memo) about the expected standards of behaviour and the disciplinary consequences that may take place. This should see you reinforce your workplace’s WHS policy, EEO policy and Code of Conduct to all attendees.


3. Be clear with when the event will finish.

Clearly set out defined start and finish times for the event and ensure that these are stated on the invitation. Realise that arranging or paying for drinks at an “after event” or “after party” will most likely extend your liability.


4. Travel.

How will workers travel to and from the function? Remember that in some jurisdictions, your workers compensation obligations do not just cover the employee’s time at work, but also extends to the journey to and from work – in this case the Christmas or end of year event.


5. Manage alcohol.

Needless to say, consumption of alcohol is likely to be a key health and safety risk. Consider restricting the amount of drinks or the strength of drinks that are available. Always have non-alcoholic alternatives available.


6. Provide food.

A meal or finger food has been shown to slow down alcohol consumption.


7. Supervise!

Someone should be nominated to monitor health and safety hazards such as wet floors, loose cables, behaviour, and manage incidents that may occur during the event. Is there a first aid officer, or emergency warden nominated? Supervision should include monitoring the controls identified within your pre-event health and safety risk assessment.


8. Debrief

In the days following the event, review the pre-event health and safety risk assessment and evaluate the effectiveness of the identified health and safety controls. Good documentation at this end will support your planning for next year. Fantastic!


What if an incident does occur?

Should an incident occur, it is important that you follow your workplaces incident reporting and investigation process. After managing the incident; consider, if possible, to avoid commencing the incident investigation until people are (sober and) back at the workplace.



How do you manage the Christmas rush?

Rushing to meet deadlines?

Whilst workers are most often trying to do the right thing by their employer, rushing to meet deadlines will often result in workers cutting corners, making bad judgements or ignoring the controls that have been established to provide a safe working environment.

Management and supervisors should ensure that safety is actively monitored and inspected during this period so that it remains a key focus – let your employees know that “safety” is not entitled to Christmas leave.


New or Novice Employees

If Christmas is a period where new employees are hired, or temps engaged to cope with your increased demand, how do you ensure that they are appropriately trained, before letting them loose into the hustle and bustle of Christmas?

Workers have told us that they are less likely to ask questions during this time as they “do not want to cause more work” for their colleagues – this unfortunately often leads to injury.

We have identified that some businesses introduce office based workers into the “shop-front” to support the Christmas rush. Whilst this may bring a united spirit between the office and the shop-front – it is important that the employees who come from the office are appropriately trained and competent.


Of course, the end of year work party is supposed to be a fun time. So keep it that way. But actively working through this list and putting measures in place to prevent anything bad from happening is important as well. After all, we all want to spent our end-of-year holidays safe, happy and healthy, with our family and friends. 


Join Safety Champion’s upcoming webinar Safety Advice for the Work Christmas Party – 20 November 2019, 11AM. Register here.

Get workplace safety happening this National Safe Work Month!

Every year, October marks National Safe Work Month in Australia. This month is all about encouraging businesses to focus on getting some great workplace health and safety practices up and running.
This year’s theme is ‘Be a Safety Champion’.
The purpose of this theme is to inspire and empower every worker, to be a champion for health and safety, no matter their occupation or industry. This makes sense, because it is everyone’s responsibility to uphold strong safety practices.
In workplace safety, businesses often have good intentions. They are aware that they have a legal obligation to ensure they have safety practices in place. However, it is not always easy to know where to start.
During National Safe Work Month, you can find some fantastic resources – many of them free – to give you some direction. At Action OHS Consulting, we provide the following advice to any organisation looking for guidance in safety.


1. Look at your operations.

Start by making a list of how you think people might get injured or hurt in your workplace. Then make a list of the things you are doing (or could do) to prevent these injuries/harm from occurring. This is essentially a fantastic beginning for a great safety program.


2. Talk to your people.

Set-up a meeting with your workforce – or better still coordinate a lunch or coffee. Invite them to share “anything that makes them feel unsafe”, or “how they think things could be done in a safer way”. Then listen. At the end of the meeting, discuss how future hazards and incidents can be reported and establish some processes so your people know what to do.


3. Seek guidance.

Start by going to the Safe Work Australia or WorkSafe Victoria websites this National Safe Work Month, and find great guidance materials or local events you can attend to learn more.
PLUS, there are many freely available resources available to all Victorian small and medium sized organisations. These are fantastic starting points for any business looking to establish strong safe practices and keep their people safer at work.
  • OHS Essentials Visit through WorkSafe Victoria. For businesses with less than 60 workers, this program involves 3 x 2-hour visits by a qualified OHS consultant over a 12 month period for free. Get some great guidance on workplace safety specifically for your needs through this program.
Register for your free visit here
  • Free cloud-based OHS Software. Our sister organisation, Safety Champion, launched its “Go Free” Plan. This is a forever free version of Safety Champion Software and is perfect for small and medium sized organisations wanting to keep safety processes on track on an ongoing basis. 
Learn more about what software can do for you here
Remember – safety doesn’t have to be as hard or as complicated as you might think. So, follow the steps above this National Safe Work Month to learn how you can be a safety champion in your workplace today.