Most organisations in general do not manage silica exposure well in addition to associated risks such as lung disease, according to Curtin University.
While this varies across workplaces and industries, one area of particular concern that seems to be poorly managed is exposure to silica dust from engineered and artificial stone, said Dr Renee Carey, a senior research fellow in the School of Population Health at Curtin University.
While she noted there is not a lot in the literature around how well the risks are managed, she said WorkSafe WA undertook a recent silica compliance project which involved visiting 150 engineered stone workplaces to look at exposure to and control of respirable silica.
“They found that the majority of workers didn’t receive information on silica exposure and the hazards, and weren’t provided with appropriate control measures to reduce their exposure,” said Carey, who was speaking ahead of the AIHS 2022 WA Safety Symposium, which will be held on 25 November 2022 at Curtin University, Bentley.
“For example, most workplaces didn’t have effective mechanical ventilation, instead relying on natural ventilation such as open doors or windows, and respiratory protection wasn’t used consistently.
“Evidence from other states (particularly NSW and Victoria) suggests that the picture is similar across Australia. In particular, many organisations aren’t providing their workers with required health monitoring and exposure control measures.”
Carey, who will be basing her symposium presentation on the recent report, The future burden of lung cancer and silicosis from occupational silica exposure in Australia: A preliminary analysis, said there is even less that is known about the management of risk in other industries (i.e. not engineered stone).
However, some research suggests similar findings, with a lack of PPE, ventilation, and dust suppression in use, and no or limited health and air monitoring.
“It’s also been found that awareness of the risks of silica exposure might be even lower in these workers than in those employed in the engineered stone industry because the focus recently has been on engineered stone rather than silica exposure in general,” she said. “Control of exposure in other tradespeople might also be lower – for example, a recent survey found that 73 per cent of tradespeople thought that their exposure was not completely under control.”
There are a number of common gaps and challenges for organisations in the above, and Carey pointed to a lack of awareness and knowledge around the risks of silica exposure and how to mitigate these risks effectively.
“Cost is also an issue, although some jurisdictions now offer free health screening to workers exposed to silica dust, which could be utilised by businesses,” she said.
“There’s also potentially the issue of competing risks, with silica just one hazard that businesses need to contend with, but this of course is not an excuse for businesses not controlling silica exposure effectively as it’s their duty and responsibility.”
Carey noted some research has found that workers believe their employers are aware of the risks, and just choose productivity and cost savings over safety and health.
“There’s also been a history of lack of proper regulation, monitoring, and enforcement by the regulatory authorities, although this is now changing for the better with greater awareness,” she said.
There are a number of important steps organisations can adapt work design to address these gaps and challenges, according to Carey, who affirmed there is a “huge variety” of control measures to be put in place to mitigate the risks of silica exposure.
“The principles of safe work design can be applied to designate and isolate areas for work that involves dust generation so that other workers aren’t exposed,” she said.
“Engineering controls can be used, such as local exhaust ventilation, on-tool extraction, and water suppression.
“It’s also important that these engineering controls are appropriately maintained, as research shows that this isn’t always the case, and so even if ventilation is in place, it’s often not effective in removing or reducing exposure.”
PPE also plays an important role, and Carey said this should generally be used as a last resort and/or in combination with other control measures.
“Respirators need to be appropriate to the task, fit-tested and maintained in order to be effective. Generally speaking, a combination of controls is required to make sure that workers are adequately protected,” she said.
“There’s also the crucial and obvious step of banning engineered stone, which is a particularly potent source of silica exposure and has led to a recent surge in cases of silica-induced lung diseases such as silicosis.
“There are obvious alternatives to engineered stone available so that banning this product is feasible, and our recent modelling shows that taking this step would save over 1000 lives.
“We also did some modelling to see what the effect of other control measures might be on the number of silica-related lung cancers and silicosis cases in the future.”
For example, using wet cutting methods during concrete cutting and grinding could save over 600 future lung cancers and around 6000 silicosis cases, while restricting access to mine site crushers (a particularly dusty environment) could prevent 750 lung cancers and almost 7500 silicosis cases.
Carey explained OHS professionals should be aware of the risks and the ways in which silica dust be generated and controlled.
Instituting health monitoring for workers and air monitoring for workplaces is another important step, while she said OHS professionals can also help to advocate for the banning of engineered stone, which has been discussed by regulatory agencies and the government.
“They can also ensure that appropriate control measures are in place, noting that in many cases a combination of measures is going to be required (in most cases, respiratory protection used in combination with ventilation, wet cutting, isolation, etc),” she said.
Carey will be speaking on “adapting work design to meet a deadly occupational dust disease epidemic: the re-emergence of silica-induced lung disease in workplaces” at the AIHS 2022 WA Safety Symposium, which will be held on 25 November 2022 at Curtin University, Bentley. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the event website.