Canberra stonemason Aaron Grima decided to get checked for silicosis after seeing videos about the disease on social media, “just to be safe”.
The 35-year-old, who has worked in the industry for 17 years, was shocked when he was diagnosed with chronic simple silicosis.
In his case, it should not shorten his life, but it means he needs to get regular check-ups, limit his exposure, and stay fit and active to safeguard his lungs.
Mr Grima is one of hundreds of workers across the country to have contracted the potentially deadly disease after breathing in silica dust.
There is currently no cure or effective treatment for the disease, which is surging in Australia, driven by a boom in engineered stone products such as kitchen benchtops.
“There wasn’t much safety when I first started — especially compared to nowadays,” Mr Grima said.
“Definitely, if I’d heard about it back then, different precautions would’ve been taken.”
Calls for national approach to safety laws
Australian authorities have responded to the emerging crisis by tightening safety rules and testing more workers, but silica-related laws differ from state to state.
Most jurisdictions mandate health checks and air-contamination limits to reduce exposure, but the types of tests and limits vary.
There have been attempts to develop a national approach, but the coronavirus pandemic has slowed these efforts.
Federal government agency Safework Australia has drafted a national silica-exposure code of practice and discussions have been held about creating a national dust diseases board.
“Currently, we have different jurisdictions doing different things and trying to approach this emerging work health and safety risk in different ways,” ACT Work Safety commissioner Jacqueline Agius said.
“We need to approach this in a holistic way. This isn’t just related to the stonemason, manufacturing, engineering stone — many products have silica dust in them.”
In the absence of a national framework, the ACT Government recently reduced the legal limit of silica dust exposure and required businesses to pay for workers to get yearly health check-ups, including lung-function tests and chest x-rays.
WorkSafe ACT also hosted a recent symposium on silica dust and the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining And Energy Union launched a silica dust training program.
But local businesses want the Government to introduce a dust diseases levy, mandate more thorough tests and subsidise the health checks — as happens in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.
Canberra business invests to protect staff
Pacific Stone — one of the ACT’s largest manufacturers of stone benchtops — has pushed ahead with a strict health-monitoring regime for its workers. It includes CT scans and kidney function tests.
It costs the business about $850 per worker each year, which equates to about $4 a day for each employee.
“I don’t think that’s a high cost to pay to make sure your staff are looked after,” Pacific Stone business development manager Sam Kromar said.
“[But ACT Government support for the testing] is something we would be looking for in the future.”
The business has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading its factory, in the suburb of Beard, to make its machinery safer.
Its wet-cutting system traps silica dust in water, which then drains away to a water-recycling plant, where it is filtered out as a sludge to be sent to landfill.
Mr Kromar said it was expensive but the deadly dust would otherwise be breathed in by workers.
“You don’t want to look back on your career and say that it’s something that killed you.
“At the end of the day, the duty of care doesn’t just rest with the regulator. It starts at the top of the line with suppliers, runs through commercial construction companies and builders, through to the fabricator like ourselves, to everyone on site.”
‘You’ve only got one life’: Worker wants tougher laws
Despite the changes, Mr Grima said he did not feel authorities had taken the silicosis surge as seriously as the industry had.
He said awareness and safety precautions were poor when he began his career, and he worried about the health of other stone workers.
“I hope there are some changes made in the industry … to prevent people ending up in my situation,” he said.
“I was young when I started in this trade. I absolutely loved it, felt I was good at it, and I don’t want any else falling into the same [trap].
“You’ve only got one life.”