Terrifying reason deadly workplaces still exist
INSPECTORS from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland are finally re-auditing the stone benchtop industry.
The Bulletin filed questions as part of its investigation after it learnt the Queensland Government presented a submission last November stating phase 3 of an Office of Industrial Relations (OIR) audit would happen in May.
In its response this month, the OIR said a "sample" of 140 workplaces would now be checked to ensure they were complying with the Code of Practice 2019.
Under the code, the workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica that must not be exceeded is 0.05 mg/m3 (eight-hour time weighted average). Business owners are responsible for ensuring workers undergo the proper health checks.
But CFMEU boss Royce Kupsch fears that without a "strong cop on the beat", Gold Coast stonemasons will continue to die from silicosis.
"If workplaces strictly adhere to this then workers won't be exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust. But without a strong cop on the beat, I've got no confidence every workplace or business will adhere to it," he said.
"Across Queensland there are nearly 150 workplaces that employ anywhere from five to 60 stonemasons and unless the Government puts more people on to check each and everyone, then there's no way to ensure everyone is doing the right thing by their staff."
A submission to the National Dust Disease Taskforce (NDDT) shows that between October 2017-July 2018 the OIR undertook phase 1 compliance audits on 10 stone benchtop fabrication businesses in southeast Queensland. It found "widespread noncompliance with WHS laws within the industry".
Employers and workers had a "poor understanding of the risks of respirable crystalline silica" and that uncontrolled dry-cutting was commonplace up until the past one-five years.
Businesses were also making alternations during the installation of benchtops using dry-cutting methods, and there was a misconception among the majority of workers that respiratory protection and health monitoring wasn't needed during wet processing of engineered stone.
In September 2018, phase 2 audits were conducted at 138 workplaces, providing "stronger evidence of wide‐spread non‐compliance". Dry-cutting was immediately banned in Queensland at this time and nearly 600 statutory notices were issued for respirable crystalline silica related contraventions. This included:
• 57 prohibition notices, including for uncontrolled dry-cutting of engineered stone and inadequate workplace cleaning practices; and
• 541 improvement notices for not providing health monitoring, inadequate dust
control, and issues with use and fit testing of respiratory protective equipment.
As at 22 October 2019, 17 infringement notices had been issued with fines totally $58,000.
Mr Kupsch said engineered stone accounted for up to 70 per cent of product manufactured on the Gold Coast, it was preferred by architects and that it was "cheap and available in any colour".
He said suppliers of engineered stone were adamant the product did not pose any threat to workers if it was handled correctly and they adhered to strict safety protocols.
"The onus is on employers to take responsibility for the health of their workers but in some instances I know people will get the punt if they ask for a health screening for silicosis," he said.
"I don't think we've seen the true spike in people presenting with silicosis because they don't want to make contact with their doctor for fear they'll lose their jobs."
WHAT IS THE QUEENSLAND GOVERNMENT DOING ABOUT THE SILICOSIS CRISIS?
According to spokesman from the Office of Industrial Relations (OIR), Queensland is leading the nation in its response to responding and addressing silicosis in the engineered stone industry.
In the absence of a co-ordinated national approach to occupational dust, the State Government agency says it is engaged with suppliers and importers of engineered stone products to ensure they understand the risks associated with respirable crystalline silica.
They also have to give details of information provided to every person they've supplied with engineered stone.
Last year, Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace requested that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) investigate the matter of imported engineered stone and the related silicosis risks. She also advocated for "national action in response to the threat posed by respirable crystalline silica, including the development of a national code of practice".
But the State Government has fallen short of calling for a ban on the importation of engineered stone, saying "border control and the banning of imports is a matter for the Federal Government".
The OIR spokesman said other actions taken by Queensland include:
• An industry-wide audit campaign of known stone benchtop fabrication businesses.
• Development of a nation-first code of practice.
• Implemented an agreed reduction to the national workplace exposure standard for RCS from 0.1 milligrams per cubic metre (mg/m3) to 0.05mg/m3 with the expectation of a further reduction.
• Free initial health screenings for current or former workers exposed to dust from engineered stone at workplaces.
• WorkCover assistance with the workers' compensation process, medical treatment and rehabilitation.
• Removal of two-year time period from the definition of "terminal condition" in the Workers' Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 so workers given a life expectancy of greater than two years can get terminal benefits (lump sum of up to $714,455).
• Commissioning of an international research project to examining support for workers diagnosed with silicosis.
• Established Australia's first Notifiable Dust Lung Disease Register.
• Created legislative reforms and standards relating to monitoring and control of RCS for mine workers.
• Set up the Mine Dust Health Support Service.
• Started work on new code of practice for the management of RCS in construction industry
WorkCover's website has a range of resources for stonemasonry workers and employers or call 1300 362 128 to arrange a health screen or worker's compensation claim.
* Silicosis is an occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust and is marked by inflammation and scarring in the form of nodular lesions in the upper lobes of
* Silicosis cannot be cured or treated, and it's often fatal with thousands of stonemasons thought to be at-risk of this deadly disease.
* As of July 31, 2020 WorkCover had completed health screening of 1052 stonemasons exposed to respirable crystalline silica from engineered stone.
* 217 were diagnosed with a work-related condition.
* Of these workers 174 have silicosis, 32 had progressive massive fibrosis (potentially fatal) and 13 have respiratory condition that is not silicosis.
Rock and rock products contain different amounts of silica
• Demolition Dust 3-4%
• Shale 22%
• Clay bricks 15-27%
• Aggregates in concrete 30%
• Fibre cement bricks 10-30%
• Granite 25-40%
• Natural sandstone 67%
• Engineered or manufactured stone 90-95%
What can silica dust do?
When silica dust lies within the lung tissues, chemical reactions can occur which result in tissue injury followed by the healing response of the lung. Dust lodged in the lungs can cause an inflammatory process, scarring in the lungs and reducing the body's ability to breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Damage in the lung tissue causes a small scar, in the form of a small nodule which can be seen on a chest x-ray. This type of lung damage is called silicosis.
Symptoms of simple silicosis
There may be no symptoms.
Shortness of breath.
Symptoms of complicated silicosis
Shortness of breath.
Originally published as Terrifying reason deadly workplaces still exist