Published: 08/12/2022
Category: The Bulletin
Published: 08/12/2022
Category: The Bulletin

Let’s start with the story of Joanna…

Joanna – a mother of two and a wife, in her early 30s – was working in an administration role for a quarry belonging to a huge multinational company that manufactured construction materials.  

Joanna’s job had little to do with the manufacturing side of business. In her role, Joanna oversaw things like purchasing and payroll from her office, located around 90 metres from the quarry’s crushing plant.  

The dust thrown up by the action of the crushing plant was so pervasive she said that, “you could taste it on your lips. Every time you’d go home from work you could actually taste it.” 

In her administrative duties, Joanna would also frequently run the safety meetings for staff; sometimes even tasked with taking the minutes. 

Nowhere in any of those minutes, in any of those meetings, was she or any other workers for the company made aware of a substance called silica. 

After returning from maternity leave, Joanna went for her routine medical as required by her employer.  

Following an X-ray, she was informed that there appeared to be something on her lungs. 

A medical biopsy revealed that the ‘something’ was silica dust, and that Joanna was suffering from an entirely preventable occupational lung disease, caused by exposure to this substance, called silicosis. 

Joanna was informed in that fateful phone call that she didn’t have cancer, as though that was some sort of consolation prize: “I didn’t even know that was a possibility.” 

Now, Joanna must remain vigilant for the rest of her life; things like making sure she gets regular lung function testing and plenty of exercise, or else risk shortening her lifespan and/or quality of life significantly. She’s also more at risk of getting seriously ill from things like COVID, pneumonia or the flu. 

“Considering my lungs are filled with silica dust…” she says with a short laugh, “I don’t know where my future leads.” 

I can’t be alone in thinking it’s one of the most morally reprehensible things an employer can do: letting workers unknowingly expose themselves to dangerous substances, day in, day out for years, when the employer knows the risk. 

Joanna wants workers briefed; they should be made aware of the dangers of silica dust before they sign on as an employee. The duty of care should be on the employer. But as things currently stand, even masks are not properly enforced, says Joanna. 

Our guest on The Bulletin this week, ACTU Assistant Secretary and OH&S spokesperson Liam O’Brien, wants even more done to protect workers from the hazards of respirable crystalline silica.  

He and a delegation of workers affected by the disease, including Joanna, visited Canberra a month ago to deliver that clear message to ministers Tony Burke, Mark Butler and Ged Kearney. 

“It’s entirely preventable with better workplace practices,” Liam says. 

Approximately 600,000 people are exposed to silica in their workplaces per year. According to modelling by Curtin University that could become over 100,000 workers contracting the incurable lung disease if not enough is done to improve safety immediately. 

“We could’ve prevented this, but we’re seeing hundreds of workers a year being diagnosed with [silicosis].” 

Where to now..?

The headline figure is that over 200 people die at work a year. What is vastly less known is that a further 5,000 die each year from disease caused by exposure to dangerous substances at work.  

One in four stonemasons are diagnosed with silicosis from constant exposure to the dust created when cutting through engineered stone. 

As it stands, Australia’s regulations around silica exposure are so lax that workers in places like the United States and Mexico are better protected against it. 

With that in mind, Liam and the entire union movement are pushing for a full ban on the importation of engineered stone.  

In the shorter term, more controls and an improvement to workplace practices would go a long way in preventing many of these workers from ending up with silicosis. 

The union movement will keep fighting for protections for these and any workers who are put at risk in their line of work, because even one preventable death at work is too many.

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The Silent Silicosis Epidemic

The Silent Silicosis Epidemic