With new estimates showing that over 230 lung cancer cases in Australia each year are caused by exposure to silica dust in the workplace, tradies need to be more aware of cancer risks on the job, according to Cancer Council Australia.
It is estimated that around 600,000 Australian workers each year are exposed to silica dust at work, including miners, construction workers, farmers, engineers, bricklayers and road construction workers, as well as those working in demolition.
Many Australian DIY home renovators may also not be aware of the invisible cancer risks when their bathroom tiles or new granite kitchen benchtop are being cut to size by themselves or contractors, said Terry Slevin, chair of the occupational and environmental cancer risk committee for Cancer Council Australia, which has published a fact sheet on silica and cancer risk.
“Silica is surprisingly common – it’s found in stone, rock, sand, gravel and clay, as well as bricks, tiles, concrete and some plastic materials,” said Slevin.
“When these materials are worked on or cut, silica is released as a fine dust that’s 100 times smaller than a grain of sand. It’s so small you can’t see it – but if you breathe it in, in some cases it can lead to lung cancer.
“We continually see workers cutting granite kitchen benchtops, tiles or bricks, or demolishing materials without proper protection in place, which is a very real concern.
“We estimate that silica dust is causing over 230 lung cancer cases each year across the country.
“These are cancer cases that could have easily been prevented through dust prevention or control, adequate ventilation or personal respiratory protection.
“Of around 11,000 new cases of lung cancer diagnosed each year in Australia over 8,000 are due to smoking, 230 due to silica dust and 130 due to diesel exhaust.
“These are preventable and given the poor survival rate for lung cancer it is so vital we do all we can to prevent them.”
Slevin said it is important for business and OHS professionals to remind workers of this issue and that it is a serious one.
“In addition to lung cancer silica dust is a causative agent in silicosis and COPD,” he said.
Silica dust is listed as being a known causative agent for lung cancer in the deemed diseases list (SWA 2015) and so the prospect of compensation cases being lodged in the future is high.
The mandatory limit for silica dust exposure in Australia is 0.1mg/m3 averaged over an eight-hour day.
However, the ACGIH have recommended the threshold limit value be 0.025mg/m3 over an eight-hour day; this limit was based on the prevention of lung cancer and silicosis.
“OHS professionals should be using any mediums possible to inform workers about what silica dust is, the risks and what they can do to reduce those risks,” he said.
“This could be through displaying resources in the workplace or having toolbox meetings on silica dust.”
Business owners and managers need to be involved in this process to ensure more permanent controls are put in place.
This could include discussing the potential of substituting materials that will produce silica dust with other alternatives (such as autoclaved aerated concrete in place of concrete masonry), ensuring the workplace has ventilation hoods installed, workers having access to tools that use local exhaust ventilation and rotating workers through job tasks that may create silica dust.
“Assessment of any job role that may involve exposure to silica dust is advised and action to remove the hazard is recommended where possible,” said Slevin.
“Where not possible routine use of relevant PPE is a minimum recommended action.”