One in five stonemasons diagnosed with silicosis
THE rate of silicosis detections in Queensland stonemasons has nearly doubled in the past year, with nearly 20 per cent of the industry diagnosed in what has been called the worst industrial health crisis since asbestos.
New WorkCover figures show 186 stonemasons have been diagnosed around the state with 26 having the most deadly variant of progressive massive fibrosis. More than 1000 free health screenings have been held since authorities discovered a silicosis cluster in late 2018, sparking an industry-wide audit of workers and businesses.
About one in ten stonemasons were getting diagnosed with silicosis in early testing but that alarming rate nearly doubled as the $2 million program continued through 2019.
Silicosis, which is an irreversible scarring of the lungs, can be fatal and is caused by inhaling plumes of silica dust formed when manufactured stone products are cut.
The Morrison Government is expected to ramp up a national response this year.
Queensland authorities are also due to start a fresh round of business audits to ensure compliance with a code of practice introduced in October. A previous round of compliance checks discovered nearly 600 violations in the state's 148 known engineered stone benchtop fabricators with workers facing dangerous practices such as dry cutting and poor dust control.
It's feared thousands of stone masons could be affected nationally however the full extent of the epidemic is unclear as all other states have been slower than Queensland to test workers. About 260 cases have been diagnosed nationally.
Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said the state government had "acted swiftly and decisively" to protect workers and ensure businesses were operating safely.
"I have written to various federal ministers multiple times since 2018, highlighting the need for a national response to this serious matter," she said. "This included calling on the Commonwealth to consider controls on the import of engineered stone and uniform nationwide industry regulations."
The Morrison Government established a $5 million national dust disease taskforce mid-last year.
The taskforce delivered an interim report to Health Minister Greg Hunt last month however the final report is not due until December this year.
Acute silicosis can develop within weeks of exposure to very high levels of silica dust and many of the workers testing positive have been aged 25 to 40. The youngest was 22-year-old Queenslander Connor Downes.
The life expectancy for those with the most aggressive condition, progressive massive fibrosis, is as short as three years.
Gold Coaster Anthony White, 36, became the first stonemason known to die from silicosis in March last year.