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Dust disease makes a comeback: how quarry workers can stay safe

Posted on October 26th, 2018 in Uncategorized

Quarry workers are exposed to a number of hazards in the course of their work, from body stressing when carrying heavy loads to falls from height and collisions with machinery.

Occupational lung diseases have reduced considerably since the 1960s when Occupational Health & Safety came into force and workers were required to use protective gear and respirators. But a recent rise in silicosis cases should be a cause for concern for all mine sites.

Silicosis is a disease caused by breathing in crystalline silica dust. Quarry workers need to be aware of how they can be exposed and what preventative action to take.

How are workers exposed?

A 2016 study found that 6.6 percent of all Australian workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) in the course of their job, 3.7 percent being heavily exposed. The rates are highest for miners, construction workers and tradies working with engineered stone products.

Silica is present in a wide range of stone materials, including bricks, cement, granite and quartz, as well as clay, sand and soil. Mining activities greatly increase the risk of exposure to silica, which is released into the air as fine dust around 100 times smaller than grains of sand, which easily enters the respiratory system.

What are the dangers?

According to Cancer Council Australia, approximately 587,000 Australian workers were exposed to silica dust in 2011. This will result in an estimated 5,758 cases of lung cancer, which may develop months or years down the line.

In most cases, chronic silicosis develops slowly over a period of 10 to 30 years. As there are often no symptoms in the early stages, the condition may be diagnosed too late to prevent the lungs from being permanently scarred.

Quarry workers who are heavily exposed are at risk of developing more acute forms of silicosis. Symptoms to look out for are a persistent cough, breathlessness and fatigue.

Silica dust exposure can also lead to other diseases such as kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

How can it be prevented?

All quarry sites must follow work health and safety laws related to occupational lung diseases defined by their state or territory. This involves eliminating or reducing the risk of exposure to silica dust using suitable control measures, such as:

  • Air monitoring – the level of silica dust in the air must be monitored every 12 to 18 months by an occupational hygienist.
  • Health monitoring – workers who may be exposed to silica dust should have a health assessment every one to three years to detect any loss in lung function.
  • Providing correct equipment – make sure workers are equipped with tools and personal protective equipment (PPE) that minimise exposure, such as respiratory devices. Machinery should include dust suppression or dust collection features and cabs should have a filtered air supply.
  • Water suppression – surfaces containing silica dust should be wetted before dust is generated. Water should also be supplied to non-electrified tools and equipment and work areas should be rinsed after use.
  • Exploring alternatives – quarry sites should explore other materials and processes to reduce silica dust exposure.

If you want to know more about silicosis and other occupational lung diseases, you should seek a qualified opinion from a medical practitioner.

Keep up with the latest industry developments

Find out more about the challenges facing quarries and other areas of civil construction and infrastructure at the National Construction Equipment Convention (NCEC).

NCEC takes place from 15-17 November 2018 at Sydney Showground, Sydney Olympic Park.

ncecaustralia.com.au

 Sources

The Annals of Occupational Hygiene. The Australian Work Exposures Study: Prevalence of Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica. https://academic.oup.com/annweh/article-abstract/60/5/631/2196173

Cancer Council Australia. Silica dust. http://www.cancer.org.au/preventing-cancer/workplace-cancer/silica-dust.html