The National Dust Disease Taskforce (NDDT) recently delivered their final report following a two-year investigation into the increased prevalence of silicosis in Australia. The review examined the systems currently in place for the prevention, early identification, control and management of accelerated silicosis from engineered stone, and broader occupational dust diseases. 

The Taskforce took into consideration 120 stakeholder submissions, held 11 targeted sessions, and consulted with peak bodies, unions, occupational hygienists, industry, governments, health professionals, and importantly, individuals who have been directly affected by silicosis. 

What is the National Dust Disease Taskforce (NDDT)? 

The NNDT was set up in 2019 in response to a surge of silicosis cases from the engineered stone sector. The Taskforce is made up of a cross-section of health experts, and while the panel does not contain any Occupational Hygienists, the panel consulted with the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH) throughout the process. GCG’s Principal Hygienist, Peter Knott, provided a submission and contributed to an occupational hygiene-focused session.

The Scope 

The purpose of the report was to examine the re-emergence of a preventable occupational respiratory disease: silicosis. The report states that silicosis is caused by the “inhalation of respirable crystalline silica generated when manipulating (ie. cutting, grinding and polishing) material containing silica such as engineered stone.” 

The focus of the report is dominated by engineered stone which has seen increased popularity since the early 2000s. Given that engineered stone can contain up to 97 percent crystalline silica, uncontrolled exposures at work are likely to result in permanent lung disease. Evidence suggests as many as one in four engineered stone workers are suffering from silicosis or a silica dust related disease. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer for how many workers are diagnosed with silicosis in Australia, in the stone benchtop sector or otherwise. However, estimates are provided by numerous bodies.  The strongest dataset is work-related claims, with more than 520 silicosis claims between July 2000 to June 2019. 

The report outlines a number of recommendations, which collectively provide the roadmap for addressing the risks facing workers in industries that generate hazardous dusts such as silica. It identifies a range of specific regulatory and non-regulatory actions designed to have an immediate impact on improving worker health and safety. 

Recommendations 

Overall, the report notes that Australia’s Workplace Health and Safety laws and regulations have failed to adequately protect the health of workers and require urgent reform. In addition, it notes the health effects of exposure can take many years to develop with considerably more workers likely to be at risk of future development of disease. While a product ban is not recommended at this stage, the report strongly suggests that urgent action be taken to achieve significant improvements in worker safety. The report proposes a national licensing scheme to restrict access to engineered stone and ensure that businesses undertaking this type of work can effectively manage the risk of worker exposure to hazardous silica dust.   

In terms of exposure monitoring, it is noted that current regulations do not specify the frequency of monitoring, nor where in the workplace it should occur. Concerns were raised over the competency, sampling techniques, technology, analysis techniques, proficiency testing and quality management, with improvements in these areas allowing for earlier detection of hazards, better identification of disease cases and earlier intervention. The report calls for greater consistency and clarification in how businesses should conduct air monitoring. Specifically, it is noted that businesses should engage appropriately accredited Occupational Hygienists to ensure consistency and accuracy in the monitoring of workplaces. 

Next Steps

It is expected that the report and its recommendations will be pivotal for future changes to the engineered stone (stone benchtop) sector. It will also be leveraged to address all other occupational lung diseases that are on the rise. The report indicates the Commonwealth Government will review the recommendations in consultation with the jurisdictions, and provide a plan for implementation of the report’s recommendations by the end of 2021. 

GCG’s Principal Hygienist, Dustin Bennett, has welcomed the national focus on preventing occupational diseases. Dustin stated that silicosis is not unique to the stone benchtop sector, as such, however the lessons learnt provide valuable insights to support the prevention, control and management of all occupational exposures to workers. With silicosis being a known and preventable risk, GCG are strong advocates for businesses to review their health risks and prioritise controls for any unacceptable risks. 

To read the report in full, click here.

For additional practical information on controlling workplace exposures, please refer to:

 

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