An outbreak in cases of accelerated silicosis in Australia has sparked calls from government bodies to address what is widely regarded as a national epidemic, and has major implications for people working with stone.
There have been many developments on a legislative level since Discovering Stone magazine first wrote about the increasing incidence of silicosis in late 2017. Some of the most important initiatives have come from the industry itself.
Caesarstone positions itself as Australia’s trusted name in premium quartz surfaces and has been actively working to educate fabricators to implement the correct safety practices across the engineered stone industry for many years. It believes the construction, mining and manufacturing industries are facing significant workplace health and safety challenges, particularly concerning silicosis.
Silicosis is not new and is an entirely preventable disease, according to Caesarstone’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand, David Cullen. He told Discovering Stone: “Part of the company’s overall strategy to further improve safety standards involves ensuring all fabricators are aware of, and ready to comply with workplace exposure standards which if enacted as intended, represent a significant decrease in the Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) limits from 0.1 to 0.05 mg/m3 for all fabricators.”
To meet these ongoing challenges, Caesarstone instigated the formation of the Australian Engineered Stone Advisory Group (AESAG). It brought together three of the leading engineered stone suppliers, Caesarstone, Quantum Quartz and Smartstone Australia, with the primary focus of developing an industry-wide response to address the occupational risk of silicosis for fabricators who are working with engineered stone products without the correct safety measures in place.
Working alongside state governments particularly in Queensland and NSW and with major suppliers, AESAG has identified what it sees are critical priorities for the industry, including the need for self-regulation. “AESAG’s new accreditation program for fabricators is a vital step towards improving self-regulation, and the group has appointed Wesfarmers subsidiary, Greencap, to manage the program and provide support in implementing the required changes across the industry,” explains David.
“Caesarstone remains confident that a cooperative approach to workplace safety can address silicosis because engineered quartz surfaces are entirely safe when fabricators actively implement the recommended workplace regulations and safety standards.”
Caesarstone Australia has been a consistently strong advocate and communicator on safely fabricating engineered stone, and in acting to address workplace health and safety. “We continuously update our material safety data sheets and produce and circulate fabrication manuals with the latest health and safety advice, for our fabrication partners. In 2010, we took additional steps to introduce warning notices about the risks of silicosis issuing DVDs and adding notices to our labels, invoices and delivery notes,” said David.
“During 2016, we held a series of roadshows across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, educating fabricators on health and safety, and in 2018 Caesarstone was among the first companies to join the Government Taskforce on Health & Safety in both Queensland and New South Wales.
“Alongside all of this, Caesarstone’s Master of Stone website provides easy to follow guidance and videos for fabricators as part of our ongoing commitment to encouraging best practice in the workplace.
“Today, we are actively driving the implementation of AESAG’s accreditation program to have all fabricators working with Caesarstone accredited by 30 June 2020. Directly and through Greencap we will work closely with our fabrication partners to assist them to achieve accreditation.
“We believe all industry participants have a role to play in preventing silicosis and together we can lead the way to a professional, confident and safe fabrication industry.”
CDK Stone has also taken a significant participating role in safety programs surrounding silicosis. Joint managing director, James Woodyatt, explains: “SafeWork NSW have stated that awareness, education and behavioural change are the keys to eradicating silicosis from our industry, so we have looked for ways to support each of these initiatives.
“CDK Stone has contact with the majority of Australia’s stone fabricators, so we teamed with SafeWork NSW to turn their ‘Which Mask’ campaign into 20,000 stickers to be placed on parcels delivered to fabricators to help get the message to frontline of workers who will benefit most from it.
“Knowing that we are not qualified to provide advice on this topic, we have used our email database to alert companies to different websites, seminars and services that are offered by relevant experts.
“CDK Stone also forwards communications from the various national and state authorities about regulations and safe working guides. Our whole team reinforces the need for behavioural change, urging customers to seek expert guidance and to implement the measures that they recommend.”
In addition, the company has expanded its range of products that support its customers and their efforts to comply with new fabrication regulations. These include more wet-cutting and grinding tools, H-Class vacuum extractors and a broader range of respiratory protective equipment (RPE) from market-leading manufacturers. It highlights templating, software, production and transportation solutions that largely eliminate the need for on-site processing.
James said it gratefully accepted an invitation to join AESAG as an associate member. “Not being a supplier of engineered stone, our role is supplementary to that of the founding members and we were excited to participate in such a powerful industry initiative. We all know that great things can be achieved when an industry aligns and combines to drive change, and that’s what AESAG is doing,” he explains.
“Our role is to help the group understand what products are available to support their initiatives, share relevant insights from our knowledge of local and overseas operations, search for products to fill gaps in the market and play our role in driving awareness and change among our customers.”
Safe Work Australia, the national body that develops work health and safety policies, has cut the silica dust exposure limit for workers from 0.1 milligrams per cubic metre over an eight-hour shift to 0.05 milligrams. However, the new limit won’t come in for three years and has to be ratified by state and territory governments.
The Cancer Council of Australia, unions and Victorian government wanted the limit to be set at 0.02 milligrams per cubic metre, which would make Australia a world leader in silica safety. Western Australia and the ACT backed Victoria’s bid to bring the limit down to 0.02 mg, similar to the standard in the USA, but were unsuccessful. At the same time, some business groups had been arguing for the status quo.
The Federal Government’s new $5 million national dust diseases task force has also begun work on a prevention, early identification, control and management plan. It is working on getting a national dust disease register up and running by the end of this year. The taskforce is made up of medical experts, researchers and industry representatives.
The latest regulations introduced by the Andrews Labor Government banning the uncontrolled dry cutting of engineered stone to protect Victorian workers from exposure to deadly silica dust are now in effect. Employers must now ensure power tools are not used to cut, grind or abrasively polish engineered stone unless on-tool water suppression or dust extraction devices are in place and respiratory protection is used.
The Labor Government’s action plan includes free health screenings for stonemasons, a compliance blitz of high-risk work places and an awareness campaign to highlight the risks.
In Queensland, the state government is set to introduce Australia’s first Code of Practice for the stone benchtop industry. Industrial relations minister Grace Grace said in a statement, “The ‘Managing respirable crystalline silica dust exposure in the stone benchtop industry code of practice 2019’ which will commence on 31 October 2019, applies to all fabrication or processing, including during installation, maintenance and removal, of engineered and natural stone benchtops. It sets minimum and enforceable standards to ensure silica dust is managed safely and workers are protected.”
A medical approach
Monash University’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI) is tackling silicosis by testing a hormone that may provide the first effective treatment for it, according to a recent edition of Monash University magazine.
BDI’s Dr Jane Bourke, a lung disease expert, has been given funding (by law firm Maurice Blackburn, which is active in occupational lung disease claims) to try to find out whether the hormone relaxin could be a treatment.
Monash University’s Dr Ryan Hoy who is with Monash’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, will collaborate on the research.
Dr Bourke has already studied the effects of relaxin on asthma, and is now extending the study to silicosis. Relaxin is a pregnancy hormone already shown to have anti-fibrotic effects in the kidney and heart, and some other types of lung fibrosis not caused by silica. Dr Bourke’s research in pre-clinical models shows it relaxes the airways, potentially making it easier to breathe.