CHP conduct onsite health monitoring for crystalline silica across Perth and WA to WorkSafe requirements.
Health surveillance or health monitoring, is a requirement for any employer exposing their workers to hazardous substances in the course of work. Where there is risk to an individual’s health through potential exposure to crystalline silica, the employer has the responsibility of providing health monitoring at no cost to their employees.
Silica is highly toxic in dust form. Airborne or respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is 20 times more toxic than coal dust. The risks are not only to miners and quarry workers, but also to workers in construction, stone cutting and demolition work. Of concern, is the recently identified increasing incidence of silicosis among younger workers in the manufactured stone industry.
Safe Work Australia (SWA) has identified occupational lung diseases as a key priority in its 10-year Australian Work Health Safety Strategy.
NEW Guidance note: “Safe stone product fabrication and installation – Protecting workers from silica exposure” by The Commission for Occupational Safety and Health, Dec 2018.
What is silica health monitoring?
Exposure to crystalline silica dust can cause lung disease. Silica dust is so fine it can enter the deepest parts of the lungs. This dust can build up in the lungs causing scarring and stiffening which leads to silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema) and lung cancer.
Health monitoring for crystalline silica exposure, includes a range of assessments to measure the health or biological effects of this exposure on each individual. These should be conducted annually.
Each silica health assessment includes:
- lung function test, also known as spirometry
- health questionnaire
- exposure history
- medical examination
- chest x-ray – baseline and 5 yearly (to ILO requirements)
- chest CT scan (this is under discussion as a potential new addition based on QLD guidelines)
The results are submitted to WorkSafe WA as part of your ongoing Health Monitoring program. CHP can manage all of this for you.
Guidelines for Employers
The SWA Guide for Crystalline Silica health monitoring outlines the specific health assessments required for workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica.
Silicosis is a disease that is 100% preventable if the correct safety measures are in place. This involves having adequate ventilation systems, installing dust capture systems on portable tools, wetting down stone, providing personal protective equipment such as masks and respirators, and not using compressed air to remove or clean-up settled dust.
In October 2018 WorkSafe QLD released a Guide to Safe Benchtop Fabrication and Installation to help employers in this Industry protect workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica. As well as ensuring safe working practices are in place, it recommends that businesses should:
- conduct regular air monitoring to confirm that crystalline silica dust is not exceeding the Australian Workplace Exposure Standard (see below), and
- provide health monitoring to workers.
Up to 95 per cent of crystalline silica is present in the dry cutting of engineered stone. When workers are cutting slabs of engineered stone into shape, extremely high levels of fine silica dust can be generated. Once workers breathe in this toxic dust, they are at risk of developing silicosis.
Australia is now facing a public health crisis with silicosis now being identified too often in young trade workers, especially those working with and cutting stone. Workers across Australia are at risk of developing an aggressive, debilitating and potentially lethal respiratory disease due to unsafe work practices in the manufacture and installation of artificial stone, commonly used for kitchen, bathroom and laundry benchtops.
See 10th October 2018 announcement from the Royal Australian College of Physicians calling for urgent action by regulators to address a public health crisis impacting workers in the artificial stone benchtop industry.
When workers are cutting slabs of engineered stone into shape, extremely high levels of fine silica dust can be generated. Once workers breathe in this toxic dust, they are at risk of developing silicosis. Silica is highly toxic in dust form. Airborne or respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is 20 times more toxic than coal dust.
The emerging silicosis crisis
Approximately 35% of workers screened in Queensland were found to have accelerated silicosis, and there is a high rate of progressive massive fibrosis — a stage in which the inflammation and scarring in the lung is very active and the worker is highly likely to become permanently disabled or die. These cases are affecting young men (the youngest to date is aged 21 years), often with dependent families, early in their working careers.
Silicosis is currently believed to be incurable other than by lung transplantation. These cases represent a tragedy that is made more poignant by the fact that silicosis is totally avoidable.
Symptoms of silicosis
Silicosis causes shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue and a severe cough. But symptoms often may not present in the early stages of the disease, so it can go undetected for years. There are three common types of silicosis:
- Chronic — occurs after at least 10 years of exposure
- Accelerated — results from higher exposure levels and 5-10 years of exposure
- Acute — develops from weeks or months of very high exposure
Workers with silicosis gradually develop breathlessness on exercise, and a dry cough, which usually progresses gradually; without transplant they will eventually develop respiratory failure and die. However, symptoms often present late so many patients will not notice anything until severe disease is established.
Cases can be detected earlier by regular health surveillance in the workplace. This is currently mandatory but is seldom actually done. If caught early enough, and further exposure is prevented, silicosis only progresses slowly. However, if high levels of free silica have been inhaled, the rapidly progressive type (accelerated silicosis) can occur.
Air monitoring for crystalline silica
A thorough examination has to be made of all work processes involving crystalline silica to identify those processes which are generating dust, and whether workers are being exposed to dust containing RCS. Managing the risk may require the PCBU or employer to measure worker’s dust exposure so that adequate controls can be put in place to protect the long-term health of the worker.
You may not be able to tell whether or not the exposure exceeds the Workplace Exposure Standard (WSE) as respirable dust is not visible to the naked eye, so monitoring for airborne contaminant levels may be required. The WSE for crystalline silica is 0.1 mg/m3.
The sampling protocol to be used is that contained in Australian Standard 2985 – 2009 Workplace Atmospheres – Method for sampling and gravimetric determination of respirable dust. As a guide, regular long-term unprotected exposure of workers > 0.5 WES is considered a significant risk requiring review for possible health monitoring.
CHP can also conduct this air monitoring for you.
Exposure to silica dust causes many problems not only to miners and quarry workers, but also to workers in certain types of construction, stone cutting and demolition work, as well as those working in art rooms. Silica dust is so fine it can enter the deepest parts of the lungs. This dust can build up in the lungs and scar them – leading to a number of diseases. These include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema), silicosis, lung cancer, and renal disease.
Health risks from crystalline silica
Dusts containing respirable crystalline silica (RCS) in WA workplaces represents a long standing work health hazard. Crystalline silica dust particles are small enough to penetrate deep into the lung and may cause lung damage.
Health risks from RCS exposure include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema), silicosis, lung cancer, and renal disease. These diseases have a long latency, usually appearing decades after the individual started being exposed.
Although cases of silicosis had decreased substantially over the last three to four decades, increases in mechanisation have resulted in potentially very high exposures in some workplaces and these types of respiratory diseases being back on the increase. Silica is classed as a Group 1 carcinogen (cancer causing compound) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
A number of epidemiologic studies from around the world have shown an increased risk for lung cancer among workers exposed to inhaled crystalline silica in the form of quartz.
Who is at risk from silica dust exposure?
Examples of work activities involving crystalline silica dusts that require special attention when assessing exposure include:
- excavation, earth moving and drilling plant operations
- clay and stone processing machine operations
- paving and surfacing
- mining and mineral ore treating processes
- construction labouring activities
- brick, concrete or stone cutting, especially using dry methods
- abrasive blasting—blasting agent must not contain >1 per cent crystalline silica
- foundry casting
- Jack hammering, scabbling and chiselling of concrete.
- Cleaning up of dust and debris created by the above activities