Skip to main content
29 Jan 2024

Shining a Light on Silica Dust: Increasing Awareness and Preventing Occupational Hazards

Shining a Light on Silica Dust: Increasing Awareness and Preventing Occupational Hazards

Written by our PR agency

Exposure to crystalline silica dust has long been a known cause of lung disease and continues to present risks in various Australian industries and workplaces. With around 100,000 cases of silicosis estimated to result from current exposures to respirable silica dust at work, there is a very real risk of Australian workers developing incurable lung diseases.

“The recent rise in cases of silicosis among workers in the stone benchtop industry highlights the high level of risk associated with engineered stone,” says Kate Cole, Chair of the External Affairs Committee of the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH).

While existing workplace health and safety laws do outline the obligations and duties of employers for the protection of workers, as well as a workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica, Kate believes that the risks are not always understood and the legal requirements are not always put in place.

“Some workplaces often don’t understand what the law requires of them, or the risk that silica dust poses to the workforce and as a consequence, they don’t put the necessary protections in place. One of the biggest gaps that I see at the moment is basic compliance with health and safety laws,” she says.

Understanding silica dust exposure

Silica exposure occurs when materials containing silica are manipulated through industrial and manufacturing processes such as cutting, drilling or crushing (most commonly in industries including mining, construction, tunnelling, demolition, pottery and stonemasonry). Workers involved in these processes can be at risk of developing silica-related diseases, ranging from silicosis to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), pulmonary fibrosis, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, scleroderma and lung cancer.

A multi-layered approach is key

The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) alone is not enough to protect workers from silica dust exposure. “Personal protective equipment is always the last line of defence, and it’s only used to supplement other control measures in place. Businesses should always look to put what we call ‘higher-order’ control measures in place first,” says Kate.

This involves the design of processes so that silica-containing materials are replaced with no-silica products. If that’s not possible, then it’s imperative to prevent the need to generate dust in the first place, which relies on a good focus on health during the design phase of a project or build. “Then we start to look at what’s known as ‘engineering’ controls, so the use of water for dust suppression, and/or on-tool ventilation or other types of ventilation to remove the dust. In some industries, even with all of these engineering controls, silica dust remains in the air, so PPE in the form of respirators is essential,” adds Kate.

Providing training to workers who are required to handle or use silica-containing products is critical, in addition to genuine consultation with workers to improve understanding and facilitate two-way conversation around what’s needed to keep workers safe.  “It’s been reported that workers with no education, information or training on silicosis prevention have an eight-fold greater risk of developing silicosis,” notes Kate.

With increasing focus on this important issue, there have been some further in-roads in the development of tools and equipment, including built-in dust suppression systems on hand-held tools or larger heavy machinery, as well as mobile dust suppression and ventilation systems, and real-time monitoring solutions. However, Kate stresses that these are only effective if used properly.

Helping workers breathe freely

“It’s estimated that 100,000 Australian workers may be affected by silicosis, though many cases go undetected until the disease is advanced. Organisations need to work closely with occupational hygienists, to address the problem and implement effective prevention measures.”

The New South Wales (NSW) government has taken a significant step toward improving workplace health and safety by introducing stricter penalties for dust diseases.

The new penalties are designed to serve as a powerful deterrent against unsafe workplace practices that lead to dust exposure. By making it clear that negligence in dust control will come at a high cost, employers are incentivised to prioritise worker safety and invest in the necessary measures to minimise dust exposure.

Additional Resources

For additional resources on silica dust exposure and silicosis be sure look at:

Attend the WHS Show

To learn more and see in-person sessions related to all things Workplace Health & Safety, including Silica Dust Exposure, be sure to check out the next Workplace Health and Safety Show.

View all WHSS Blog


Get the inside scoop on show features, exhibitors, speaker announcements, and more!