Stone Benchtop Workers and Risk of Fatal Silicosis

WorkSafe WA recently issued a safety alert about the serious health risks caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) for workers in the stone benchtop manufacturing, finishing and installation industries.

The alert, which was in line with other recent warnings from safety regulators around the country, said that cumulative exposure to RCS may cause serious, debilitating and potentially fatal health effects, including silicosis. RCS is smaller than dust and is invisible to the naked eye.

Tiny particles of RCS can get deep into the lungs and cause permanent, progressive lung damage. There is no effective treatment for silicosis.

Health monitoring of workers in the stone benchtop industry in Australia has found numerous cases of workers suffering silicosis.

There are three types of silicosis:

  • Acute silicosis results from short-term exposure to very high levels of silica over a period of weeks or months to several years.
  • Accelerated silicosis results from 5-10 years’ exposure to high levels of silica. This is becoming more common in workers who work with engineered stone.
  • Chronic silicosis results from long term (more than ten years) exposure to lower levels of silica.

When there is visible dust, workers are almost certainly at risk. Even when there is no visible dust, workers may be at risk.

The alert said there are a number of contributing factors:

  • Silicosis risks are much greater when working with engineered stone as it contains up to 95 per cent crystalline silica while natural stone contains 5-50 per cent crystalline silica.
  • Fabricating and installing natural and artificial stone bench tops can release high levels of RCS through cutting, grinding and polishing processes, particularly when dry cutting methods are used.
  • Workers can also be exposed to RCS from wet grinding and polishing processes, poor cleaning practices, including dry sweeping of dust, the use of compressed air, using non-H class HEPA filtered vacuum cleaners or by allowing dust to build up within the workplace.
  • Workers may not be aware of the hazards and appropriate controls.
  • Respirators may not be selected or used appropriately.

Source: Safety Institute of Australia, 15 November 2018