An alarming spike in victim numbers for the deadly dust disease of silicosis, driven by the demand for engineered stone kitchen benchtops, could dominate the injury compensation law landscape in 2020.
Prominent Brisbane compensation law specialist Trent Johnson says the latest reported estimate puts the number of silicosis cases at 350 nationwide — about 100 more than in September.
He says the estimate of 350 silicosis cases comes from a leading dust diseases clinician, Dr Graeme Edwards, who is also a member of the taskforce advising the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, on the crisis.
Trent Johnson, an Accredited Specialist in injury compensation and a Director with Bennett & Philp Lawyers, says Dr Edwards is a renowned respiratory expert and Mr Johnson endorses his views,
Thousands of workers have inadvertently inhaled dangerous quantities of silica during the engineered stone manufacture and installation process over the last decade. Dr Edwards is reported by the ABC as saying studies show the silica in some engineered stone benchtops can be significantly more toxic than asbestos”.
Because the silicosis reporting system is so varied around Australia, the reports of 350 cases nationwide are an estimate. In an ABC report, Dr Edwards concedes it’s impossible to know the true magnitude of the problem, but 350 is the best guess.
“From the first 35 that I saw, we were thinking in the order of one in three persons who were exposed for more than three years would develop the disease, so 30 per cent” he is quoted as saying.
Based on the new figure, the estimated level of toxicity has since been revised down to around 20-25 per cent, meaning between one in four and one in five people who have had extended exposure may become unwell.
Trent says injury rates of 20-25% for long term exposure are alarming and given current knowledge and the abundance of available PPE (personal protective equipment) there is no reason any worker should be exposed to silica dust whilst working.
Dr Edwards believes there is a safe way to handle silica, unlike asbestos, and that the problem lies with enforcement.
Trent says any employer exposing their workers to silica dust (or any other hazardous substance) should be mindful of the risk of not only injury to the workers but also prosecution under the relevant workplace health and safety laws within their state, some of which such as Queensland extend to industrial manslaughter for conduct contributing to death which may include a terminal illness such as progressive silicosis.
Dr Edwards notes that in a formed state, the product silica is safe and there is a law that prohibits the unsafe work practices that unfortunately we are still seeing today.
Trent agrees with Dr Edwards’ view that the problem lies with enforcement.
Regulation of the industry is being improved but has a way to go; a national code of practice is being developed but won’t be enacted before late 2020 at the earliest.
Trent says meanwhile any worker exposed to silica dust from formed/engineered stone products should consider lodging a notification only workers’ compensation claim so that there is a record of their exposure in the event they become unwell at a later time.
There’s growing awareness of just how serious silicosis has become and it could well be a major feature of the compensation law landscape in 2020,” he says.
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