Silent killer targeting our tradies
FORST Lake specialist radiologist Dr Catherine Jones wants more workers to be tested as evidence mounts that tradies are being exposed to a deadly disease.
Dr Jones is diagnosing many cases of silicosis, which she says is rampant in Brisbane's southwest suburbs.
The deadly disease is being found in young men from the building industry who are exposed to tiny particles of silica when processing or installing manufactured stone, such as stone benchtops.
Dr Jones, clinic director of the recently opened I-MED Radiology Network at Forest Lake, is one of a handful of specialist radiologists with the extra qualifications needed to read chest x-rays for WorkCover claims from people who cut or work with stone products.
"There has been an almost systematic lack of awareness of every level ... no one knew it was so dangerous, but we are becoming aware of the extent of the problem now," she said.
Dr Jones already spends about a third of her working life reading x-ray film on possible silicosis cases and conferring with GPs and other specialists on the results, but she says more people need to be tested.
As of March 29, the State Government's WorkCover office had accepted 119 workers' compensation claims relating to silica exposure, with 18 of the claims involving a diagnosis of progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe form of the disease.
"If you cut, shape, polish or install manufactured stone products, you should be aware of the risks and consider testing," Dr Jones said.
Some of the radiographs Dr Jones reads are sent from other clinics around Queensland - but many of them come from people who live and work in Brisbane's southwest.
"A lot of workers are at risk. One of the reasons I'm here in Forest Lake is to provide education to people in this community."
She urged tradesmen and building industry workers with any level of risk to contact WorkCover, where funding for testing could be organised.
"I haven't heard of women involved - there may be - but it is predominantly men in this male-dominated industry, as young as in their 20s, who are most at risk," she said.
A spokesman for the Office of Industrial Relations, where the State Government's response to the silicosis risk is co-ordinated, said 552 statutory notices had been issued for breeches involving workplace cleaning practices, dry-cutting of engineered stone and the use of inadequate protective equipment.
There had been 15 fines issued with a value of $54,000. .
Workers from the southwest's light industrial workshops, where slabs of manufactured stone are crafted into benchtops, and from the region's sprawling housing estate corridors are being urged to pay attention.
Dr Jones said radiographs from those at risk should only be read by a specialist radiologist with extra training in the field, and WorkCover would help organise testing and cover the cost.
"The alarm was first raised by the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand in 2017 wanting to raise awareness of the risks among people working all silica-based stone," she said.
Dr Jones said attempts to make a pilot study on the risks last year had been converted into an industry-wide audit once the extent of the problem was clear.
"Previously, no workers were being assessed by doctors, there was no health surveillance and nothing in legislation to reinforce compliance," she said.
"The risk is much higher than had been assumed."
Dr Jones said GPs could miss vital clinical signs of the disease if workers didn't mention their connection to the building industry.
After diagnosis via x-rays, Dr Jones said the next step was for patients to be referred to a respiratory or occupational physician specialist - all arranged though WorkCover.
Dr Jones said early detection and prevention were vital to save lives in Queensland's building industry.
The number for contacting WorkCover with inquiries is 1300 362 128.