Urgent safety warnings and orders have been issued in Queensland that highlight the significant health risks caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS). Employers with workers who may be exposed to RCS should carefully consider the measures they have in place to limit exposure to RCS and reduce the risk of silicosis among their workers.
RCS has been of growing concern after a rise in awareness in other industries, including coal mining, with claims that RCS is 20 times more toxic than coal dust and is a contributing factor to black lung disease.
The Safety Alert issued by Work Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ) on 18 September 2018 comes after 22 workers' compensations claims for silicosis were lodged at WorkCover Queensland between August and September 2018. The Alert focuses in particular on workers in the engineered stone benchtop manufacturing finishing and installation industries.
Accumulated exposure to RCS can cause very serious and debilitating health effects, including silicosis, which is an aggressive form of pneumoconiosis, a disease with no cure that traditionally affects coal mine workers. Queensland Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace stated that dry cutting of engineered stone is prohibited and that enforcement action will be taken against any employer who fails to adequately to protect its workers.
WHSQ recently audited ten manufacturers of artificial stone uncovering serious unsafe work practices, including poor ventilation, lack of personal protection equipment, and dry cutting stone. As a result, WHSQ issued five prohibition notices relating to dry cutting and 23 improvement notices relating to health monitoring, and fit-testing of respiratory equipment.
WHSQ will audit all remaining engineered stone bench top fabricators and installers in the Queensland in the coming weeks. Minister Grace has indicated that Queensland will move to regulate these practices further and has written to the Federal Minister Kelly O'Dwyer demanding national action.
The Alert states that PCBUs must immediately cease uncontrolled dry cutting, grinding or polishing of artificial / engineered stone bench tops. It also includes a number of recommendations and practical steps to eliminate or reduce the risk to workers of RCS and silicosis. These include:
- engineering controls: ensure there is water suppression measures for dust, local exhaust ventilation, and that the ventilation is well fitted, cleaned, and maintained;
- isolation: isolate processes and workers where RCS is generated or handled and provide physical barriers between different work processes and work areas involving silica dust;
- substitution: consider using materials with no or lower percentage of crystalline silica content and consider replacing powered hand tools with routers and water jet cutters;
- health monitoring: provide health monitoring to workers when there is a significant risk due to exposure to RCS (noting legal requirements for health monitoring in certain industries). Provide WHSQ with a copy of the health monitoring reports of workers who have contracted a disease, injury or illness in accordance with legal requirements;
- Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE): if there is a risk from RCS, an RPE program that complies with Australian Standard AS 1715 must be implemented, including the provision of suitable, well fitted and comfortable RPE, a maintenance and repair regime, and the provision of information, training and guidance to workers. Importantly, you must ensure that workers wear the RPE when conducting dust generating processes.
- inform and consult with workers: workers must be given information, training and instruction with regard to the nature of the work, the risks associated with RCS, control measures implemented at the workplace, and steps to minimise the risk of RCS.
The emergence of RCS as a serious risk factor has put businesses on notice of the need to eliminate or minimise the risk of RCS in their workplaces. The signs of silicosis may not arise for many years but steps should be taken now avoid the debilitating disease among their workers. It is also likely to become an area of increasing regulatory concern and businesses are advised to take steps to minimise their exposure to claims and prosecution.
If you have concerns regarding RCS, dust diseases, or the Alert, please contact the Workplace Relations, Employment and Safety team for advice.