Deadly Dust Disease: Calls To Address Mounting Silicosis Risk

Doctors investigating the dust lung disease silicosis are urging workers who cut artificial stone to seek a health check. 

The NSW Opposition has backed calls from medical professionals and lawyers for urgent action to address what is quickly becoming a "public health crisis" nationwide.

There has been a recent outbreak in cases of accelerated silicosis -- a life-threatening disease of the lungs caused by exposure to unsafe levels of silica dust -- in workers and stonemasons cutting artificial stone into bench tops, commonly used in kitchens and bathrooms.

With a shorter latency period than asbestosis, it can take decades to surface, and there is no currently no treatment other than a lung transplant.

READ MORE: Lack Of Industry Action Leaving Tradies Exposed To Dust Disease

Historically occurring in the mining industry, the lung disease had all but disappeared about a half a century ago until artificial stone materials were introduced as a cheaper alternative to marble and granite.

Artificial stone typically contains over 90 percent silica -- about 60 percent more than natural stone --  and for stonemasons, this can be impossible to avoid.

"We are now seeing an increasing number of people who work with artificial stone materials used for kitchen, bathroom and laundry benchtops diagnosed with accelerated silicosis after only three to 10 years," said Dr Graham Edwards, occupational physician and Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP).

Edwards has been investigating cases in Queensland where recent health assessments have found one in three workers -- about 34 percent -- are being diagnosed with accelerated silicosis.

Last month, the state government issued an urgent warning after 22 claims were lodged with WorkCover in just three weeks.

Edwards told ten daily this number has since jumped to 35 confirmed cases, saying he expected similar rates across the country.

"We now have over 100 assessments done and that percentage appears to be holding just in Queensland alone, much to my horror," he said.

"If you multiply that nationwide, we are talking about many thousands of workers potentially being exposed, and over 100 who will have a diagnosis.

"That's a huge number and it's already overwhelming the capacity of physicians, and surgeons performing lung transplants to respond."

'I just collapsed'

After a day's work, Garry Moratti would come home covered in silica dust.

"Even with marble and granite, you wear a dusk mask. But once you cut it, the dusk was in the air. With artificial stone, we thought we'd do the same thing," he told The Sunday Project in July.

"It's everywhere."
Gary Moratti. Image: The Project

Moratti was a stonemason for 35 years until last June. He had no warning he suffered from silicosis until he collapsed one day at work.

"They took me to hospital, took some X-rays and CT scans and found spots all over my lungs," Moratti said.

While symptoms can include shortness of breath, cough, fever, cyanosis (bluish skin) and frequent chest infections, Edwards said these are not definitive.

"There is an awful lot of workers who won't know they have silicosis until they have been adequately investigated," he said.

"Right now there are going to be a lot of people in the industry who have anxiety about what might or might not be present in their lungs."
Gary Moratti didn't know he suffered from silicosis until he collapsed at work. Image: The Project

Queensland workers can seek out a respiratory health assessment by contacting WorkCover, as part of the state government's announcement last month. As for the direction of other states and territories, Edwards said he was running "blind".

The RACP and the Thoracic Society of Australia is now calling on immediate action to include health assessments for all past and present workers.

"Fear is one of the biggest challenges at this point," Edwards said.

"I can't do anything about the damage that has happened, but I can do something about the fear and anxiety people will suffer and, as we learn more and more, what we can and can't do for them."

'NSW lagging behind'

Under a six-point plan, announced by NSW Shadow Health Minister Walt Secord, a national register would allow authorities to get an accurate picture of the number of people affected, and to track their health status.

"The challenge posed by silicosis and other industrial lung diseases is too big for just one state -- we need a national approach," Secord said.

He said it was "puzzling" that the Berejiklian government appeared "reluctant to act".

Changes to industry

Doctors are concerned about the practice of dry cutting, which has already been banned in Queensland due to the dangerous level of dust it releases.

A safer technique, known as wet cutting, sprays water on the stone, reducing airborne dust by up to 90 percent.

But according to Shine Lawyers Dust Diseases expert Roger Singh, there is no regulation of the industry in Australia to enforce this practice.

"We are now speaking with stonemasons who tell us that despite the awareness that’s been raised the dry cutting continues in their workplaces and wet cutting systems, and enforcement of proper face masks, that could prevent disease are not being installed," Singh said.

"We cannot let this continue. Australians deserve safe workplaces."

The state opposition's plan would see stronger regulation of the stone cutting industry in New South Wales, and a review of work safety and personal injury laws to ensure adequate protection for workers and their families.