Last year, WorkSafe Victoria accepted 73 claims from workers with silica-related diseases resulting from workplace exposures, and five of the claims involved deaths.
- Breathing in fine (respirable) crystalline silica can cause: Silicosis (an incurable lung disease, with inflammation and scarring of the lungs, causing shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue and other symptoms). Silicosis can develop either quickly or slowly depending on exposure levels. It is a potentially fatal condition.
- Lung cancer (associated with silicosis)
- Kidney disease
- Increased risk of tuberculosis
- Possible increased risk of autoimmune diseases
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Amorphous silica does not have these health hazards
In another recent development, WorkSafe inspectors' powers were increased to allow them to issue prohibition notices and directions pertaining to non-immediate but serious health and safety risks, like exposure to silica. Until now those notices were constrained mainly to immediate physical threats, such as unguarded machinery endangering a worker’s body.
Silicosis - industrial manslaughter exposure
It needs to be remembered that industrial manslaughter laws will apply both to employers and senior officers arising out of any fatality arising from a work-based source of silica exposure. There is no time limit in Victoria on this offence and the work-based exposure need not be the sole causative exposure.
New South Wales approach
The NSW Regulator’s website advises that the ‘uncontrolled cutting, grinding or drilling of products or materials containing crystalline silica can generate hazardous levels of airborne dust. Breathing in this dust, usually over several years, leads to serious and fatal lung disease such as silicosis.’
In NSW Inspectors can issue prohibition notices to stop you from doing work that generates high levels of silica dust. If you don't comply with a prohibition notice, PCBUs (employers) can face penalties up to $100,000. The NSW Regulator advises that: