Crystalline Silica – the new asbestos

The pervasive characteristics and risks associated with crystalline silica would appear to result in workplace health concerns which are potentially more catastrophic than asbestos. Concerns with uncontrolled high levels of respirable crystalline silica (‘RCS’) in workplace environments have been raised by unions, workplace hygiene specialists, and government work safe authorities across all Australian jurisdictions, including the Cancer Council. Unions have even called for a ban on engineered stone, which has the highest levels of crystalline silica at over 90%, as a result of the increasing cases of silicosis. Various politicians, including federal Minister for Industrial Relations Tony Burke and NSW Premier Chris Minns, are also supportive of a total ban, which would make Australia the first country to prohibit the use of engineered stone.

What is silicosis?

Silica dust, a common trace mineral, can be found in many modern building and construction products. Prolonged exposure to silica dust that is airborne becomes a health risk at the workplace leading to silicosis, the scarring of lung tissues. The Cancer Council informs that silica dust can have further major health concerns for workers ranging from lung cancer, kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Trends in silicosis

Emerging trends in the rise of silicosis over recent years have referred to these workplace health concerns as ‘a potential national epidemic’, by an audit of Queensland’s stone industry. This audit revealed nearly 100 workers had silicosis with about 15% at a terminal stage. The Cancer Council has stated that around 230 people develop lung cancer each year as a result of part exposure to silica dust at the workplace. Some health specialists have rated silicosis as worse than asbestos as it can affect people much earlier in life, while asbestos typically appears later in life.

The pervasive impacts of silicosis

Silica dust, which can lead to the development of silicosis and other health issues, has inherent risk characteristics that are varied and diverse, which can make workplace health problems ‘a potential national epidemic’. The source of silica dust is wide and varied as it ranges from natural stones such as granite, shale and sandstone to engineered stone, aggregates, mortar, concrete asphalt, bricks, pavers and terracotta tiles. As silica is a common trace mineral found in many types of rocks, rock products and modern building and construction materials, exposure to silica dust can also be potentially widespread across many areas involved with these materials.

Common crystalline silica has surprisingly been found in products such as composite dental fillings, manufactured timber, dry wall, plastic boards and some plastic materials. Once again, the potential exposure to silicosis is widespread but may not be extremely high for such products.

Different types of rock and rock products contain different amounts of crystalline silica, whereby engineered stone contains over 90%, natural stone 67%, granite up to 40%, where as the level in aggregate, mortar and concrete varies. Whilst engineered stone has the highest level and easily explains why many including the unions call for its ban, research shows silicosis and other dust-related diseases are more widespread and increasing over the past decade.

Workers continue to be exposed to inhalation of RCS dust, and research by Curtain University has modelled that up to 100,000 Australians could be diagnosed with silicosis over a lifetime based on present occupational RCS exposure. This alarming trend from the model is linked to the increase in manufacturing and the use of engineered stone products as the main contributors to high levels of RCS exposure to workers. Whilst the higher levels of RCS exposure can be explained by these specific reasons, there is also a wider scope of industries which involve operations that create RCS dust, which further contributes to increasing RCS exposure levels for workers.

Industries impacted by crystalline silica

Industries that can involve the release of RCS into the air and thereby create health exposures for their workforce are more than construction workers, and may include the following activities:

  • Fabrication, installation, maintenance and removal of engineered stone counter tops,

  • Excavation, earth moving and drilling plant operations,

  • Clay and stone processing machine operations,

  • Paving and surfacing

  • Mining, quarrying and mineral ore treating processes,

  • Road construction labouring and demolition,

  • Brick, concrete or stone cutting (masonry work), especially using dry methods,

  • Abrasive blasting, including blasting agents,

  • Foundry casting, e.g. manufactured timber, plastic materials, dry walls etc

  • Angle grinding, jack hammering and chiselling of concrete or masonry,

  • Hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil wells,

  • Crushing, loading, hauling and dumping of rock and waste muck, pottery and

  • Clean up activities such as sweeping or pressurised air blowing of dust.
The impact of silica dust in the workplace

As the source of silicosis can be found across a number of materials and products as well as across a broad range of industrial activities, the impact of silica dust is strongly linked to current research and modelling in depicting an increase in Australians diagnosed with silicosis. Emerging from the current research and modelling is the likely expectation of an increase in workers compensation claims for silica dust related diseases. This may also become more evident particularly as medical experts consider silica dust related diseases to affect the health of workers much earlier in life.

What employers can do to mitigate silica dust risk

Employers have a duty to protect their workers by providing a safe and healthy workplace environment. Failure to do so can have significant consequences, both financial and reputational. The construction giant Boral being fined $180,000 by WorkSafe Victoria for failing to ensure their workers wore masks properly thereby exposing them to dangerous silica dust, is a recent case. The financial costs ranging from the fine to potential increased insurance premiums, and the negative media coverage as to non-compliant work safe requirements depicts an adverse public image as a safe workplace employer.

Worksafe authorities around Australia provide risk mitigation strategies whenever working with silica-based material producing dust. Strategies available for those employers whose operations involve silica producing dust are as follows:

Eliminate the risk source

Where practicable and economical, can the risk be eliminated by ceasing those operations that create silica dust or by transferring the risk activity? Transfer may involve the contracting or outsourcing of the activity to another business with specialist expertise and controls to undertake the high-risk activity.


Involves the use, where available, of alternative materials with a lower risk. Use of stone benchtops with lower silica counts is an option.

This covers the restriction of silica dust producing activities to a designated work area only, which is appropriately set up with all required risk mitigation controls such as:
  • Dust water suppression when cutting, grinding, drilling or polishing

  • Dust collection systems for capturing silica dust in tool bags/compartments

  • Air ventilation and filtration mechanisms for the isolated work area

All pre-cutting, grinding, drilling and polishing of stones must be undertaken in this isolated work area and not at work sites.

Engineering controls

These cover dust water suppression mechanisms, dust collection compartments and bags, and ventilation with filtration systems for removing airborne silica dust. These controls would be required for tools, equipment and large-scale machinery to be fitted with. Designated work areas for silica dust producing activities must also have appropriate engineering controls.

Administrative controls
This covers the restriction of silica dust producing activities to a designated work area only, which is appropriately set up with all required risk mitigation controls such as:
  • Application where feasible, of staff rotation for working activities that create silica dust, thereby reducing exposure levels.

  • Provision of specific staff training on work safety and health practices for employers involved in silica dust practices.

  • Implementation of effective cleaning and hygiene processes such as vacuuming dusty work clothes and the workplace before leaving for home, arranging for these workers to have their work clothes laundered at work only.

  • Regular monitoring of the health of staff at the workplace to check levels of dust.
Personal protective equipment

Provision for use of appropriately filtered masks, respirators and protective clothing.

An overarching responsibility for employers with these strategies and consistent with best risk management practices, is to have a formal monitoring structure in place which regularly and effectively reviews:
  1. Compliance with all workplace safety strategies and controls

  2. Activities to ensure compliance with WorkSafe/WorkCover legislative requirements

  3. The workplace environment to ensure all planned strategies/controls are in place, working effectively as planned and are both current and relevant to the present risk environment. Where identified controls are deficient they must be reinforced, new ones implemented or upgraded to address new risks.
What insurance is available for exposure to silicosis?

All insurance products operate differently, as such, it is prudent to check your policy wording and limits, to determine what coverage you have available and how your policy may respond. In light of recent health developments and increased reporting on the disease, silica is likely to follow the example of asbestos and become widely excluded.

In the current insurance landscape, workers compensation / employer liability insurance has scope to cover claims arising from worker silica exposure. Generally, all other general insurance products such as industrial special risks / property, broadform liability, director’s and officers’ liability, statutory liability, environmental pollution liability and professional indemnity policies have exclusions applied for loss or direct financial loss arising from or attributable to any actual or alleged liability for the following: property damage, personal injury, sickness, disease, occupational disease, disability, shock, death, mental anguish or mental injury at any time arising out of the manufacture of, mining of, use of, sale of, installation of, removal of, distribution of, or exposure to silica, silica dust, silica products or silica fibres.

Whilst directors and officers and management liability insurance policies do not have specific silica related exclusions, many do contain exclusions for bodily injury and property damage, and may only carve back coverage for defence or inquiry costs brought by regulators. As far as reasonably practicable, directors and officers have a direct legal duty to implement and monitor occupational systems and procedures which ensure safe working conditions within the workplace for their employees. This includes contractors and labour hire personnel who are engaged on site. Employers who do not have good governance practices could expose the business including the directors and officers to claims alleging professional negligence. Directors could also be held personally liable for breaches of duty of care. Penalties can involve regulatory fines, negative publicity and potentially imprisonment.

At Bellrock we can help you understand how to effectively respond to insurance policy exclusion complexities in order to safeguard your business and workforce. In essence, we can assist to make sure that your business:

  • Insurance coverage is correctly structured to ensure that it is adequate to your business needs and effectively responds to claims.

  • Workplace has appropriate risk mitigation measures and strategies are implemented for silica dust risk exposures.

  • Ensures compliance with WorkSafe legislation requirements in all Australian jurisdictions.

  • Safeguards the workplace and staff on site are effectively undertaking operations which are relevant to the current workplace environment.

For further information and advice relating to risk management of silica and other hazards, please contact a Bellrock advisor via the form below.

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