Silica stressed workers

Medical Forum April 21, 2022

With home renovations hitting an all-time high during the pandemic (to the tune of $12.3 billion in 2021) serious concern continues about the health impacts of silicosis among people from the artificial stone benchtop industry, including on their mental wellbeing.

Evidence shows that nearly one in four engineered stone workers, in the industry since before 2018, are suffering from silicosis or other silica dust related diseases, and a new study from Monash University suggests that even those workers who have left are still being affected by impacts to their mental health.

Researchers examined the physical and mental health of 547 workers undergoing assessment for silica-associated disease, noting that people with silicosis may experience breathlessness (dyspnoea) and a dry cough or be asymptomatic until the disease is at an advanced stage.

Assessments were funded by Work Safe Victoria (WSV) and all workers in the artificial stone benchtop industry, including stonemasons, managers and those in sales and administration roles were eligible.

Most participants were former factory machinists, with a smaller number of installers, computerised production workers and two ‘other’ categories taking part.

Lead author, Fiona Hore-Lacy, said those with more prominent breathing problems were likely to report higher stress, as were those who had left the stone benchtop industry, “which could be due to unstable employment after they had to leave for their health.”

With each worsening category of dyspnoea, stress increased, and the authors suggest it was the “single most important factor that limited that person’s ability to function on a day-to-day basis.”

Up to 15 years in the industry was also predictive of elevated stress, compared to low exposure duration (0–4 years); however, this association was not observed for exposure durations over 15 years.

Exposure to silica can take years or even decades to develop to the point where obvious symptoms of silicosis arise, with potentially life-threatening consequences, and many people in the industry may not be aware of the urgent need for health assessments.

Furthermore, in silica exposed workers, silicosis continues to be diagnosed after the cessation of exposure.

Silicosis has no cure and, reminiscent of the fallout from Asbestos, legal action seeking compensation for affected workers is still taking place around the nation, with a Tasmanian producer of kitchen benchtops, Heritage Stone Pty Ltd, pleading guilty to silica related health and safety breaches in November last year.

Industry was scathing of the National Dust Disease Taskforce’s recommendation not to implement an immediate ban in July 2021 on engineered stone benchtops, which can have a silica content of up to 90%.

The Taskforce, established in 2019, admits in its findings that existing WHS regulatory frameworks have not effectively protected people working with engineered stone.