What is the Silicosis Support Network?
The Silicosis Support Network was established in response to the emerging trend of new cases of silicosis, a preventable occupational lung disease occurring as a result of exposure to silica dust. This can occur in various industries, with currently the most prevalent cases occurring in workers in the engineered stone bench-top industry.
The Network is part of the Asbestos Disease Support Society Limited which was established in 1992 to help and support sufferers of asbestos related diseases, their families and carers. The Society is a not-for-profit charity registered with the Australian Charities and Not-For- Profit Commission (ACNC).
Benefits of the Network
Sometimes it can be an overwhelming experience to know who to turn to when you have been diagnosed with an unexpected illness. The Silicosis Support Network is committed to supporting its members who have been impacted by silicosis to access a range of information from medical specialists, lawyers and allied health care professionals. In conjunction with these services members also have access to the Network’s own Social Worker who can provide individualised social care programs. Support Groups are also facilitated for members to share experiences, enjoy the support and company of others, make connections with those who may be facing similar challenges and provide much needed emotional support.
What is Crystalline Silica?
Crystalline silica (silica) is found in sand, stone, concrete and mortar. It is also used to make a variety of products including composite stone used to fabricate kitchen and bathroom benchtops, bricks, tiles and some plastics. When workers cut, crush, drill, polish, saw or grind products that contain silica, dust particles are generated that are small enough to lodge deep in the lungs and cause illness or disease including silicosis.
Different types of rock and rock products can contain different amounts of silica, for example:
- Demolition Dust 3 – 4%
- Shale 22%
- Clay bricks 15 – 27%
- Aggregates in concrete 30%
- Fibre cement bricks 10 – 30%
- Granite 25-40%
- Natural sandstone 67%
- Composite (engineered or manufactured) stone 90%
The above represents typical concentrations.
What can Silica do?
Dust related lung disease occurs when the human body is unable to break-down or remove certain types of dust once it has entered the lower parts of the lungs. When silica dust lies within the lung tissues, chemical reactions can occur which result in tissue injury followed by the healing response of the lung. This is similar to an injury to the skin, such as a cut, which usually heals leaving a small scar. Dust lodged in the lungs can cause an inflammatory process, scarring in the lungs and reducing the body’s ability to breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Damage in the lung tissue causes a small scar, in the form of a small nodule which can be seen on a chest x-ray. This type of lung damage is called silicosis.
How much exposure does it take?
Development of dust related lung disease depends on a number of factors, such as the amount, how often and for how long a worker is exposed to silica containing dust. Some people are more susceptible than others to developing disease even though they may have had similar patterns of workplace exposure.
Types of Silicosis
The disease may manifest in different ways in individuals, depending on the composition of the dust, duration of exposure and individual factors. In the early stages of the disease, small scars called nodules begin to form. A chest X-ray identifies the profusion of these round or irregular nodules to determine the advanced state of the disease. In the early stages, it may be difficult to differentiate small nodules from other lung conditions, or even other normal structures in the lungs such as blood vessels.
Typical symptoms include:
- There may be no symptoms
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- A cough
When the lung nodules or fibrotic masses reach one cm in size the condition is called complicated silicosis. Further progression of disease results in large fibrotic masses in the lungs which can destroy the lungs. Progression to complicated silicosis, also known as progressive massive fibrosis (PMF) may occur in some workers if they remain or have been exposed to high concentrations of respirable dust over a generally long period of time. In PMF, there are large masses of dense scar tissue in the lungs. Workers with PMF will have significantly decreased lung function and the condition can be fatal.
Typical symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Chronic cough
- Increased sputum
- Lung dysfunction
- Pulmonary hypertension
- Heart complications
What is the treatment?
There is no cure for silicosis. When an individual has been diagnosed with silicosis they will generally not be able to work in an environment that further exposes them to dust particles and potentially further compromises their health. Treatment of silicosis requires careful management by your health care team. This may include your GP, respiratory physician, a physio/exercise physiologist, occupational therapist, psychologist and other medical and allied health care professionals. The delivery of these services will primarily centre on managing symptoms. Having a healthy lifestyle and exercising regularly is an important component of managing this medical condition.
Other Diseases resulting from silicosis
- Chronic bronchitis: persisting infection and inflammation of the larger airways of the lungs – the Bronchi;
- Emphysema: destruction of the lung tissue and loss of surface area for the exchange of gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide;
- Lung cancer: occurs with heavy exposure to silica, with smokers having a higher risk;
- kidney damage;
- Scleroderma: a disease of the connective tissue of the body resulting in the formation of scar tissue in the skin, joints and other organs of the body;
- Rheumatoid arthritis: an autoimmune disease that causes pain and swelling of the joints, particularly in the hands and feet.
Can I bring a compensation claim for silicosis?
Yes, a person who has been diagnosed with silicosis can generally pursue a compensation claim for the condition and the associated disability.
There are generally two types of claims available in Australia for conditions like silicosis – either a workers’ compensation claim or a damages claim. Workers’ compensation schemes are a no fault claim process. An injured worker simply needs to establish that they have been diagnosed with a work-related condition that is causing impairment to recover compensation. A claim for damages however involves establishing negligence of the other party. Deciding to pursue a damages claim involves a legal assessment which should be discussed with a lawyer.
Are there time limits for bringing a claim for silicosis?
Yes, in Queensland, a person needs to lodge a claim for workers’ compensation benefits with WorkCover Queensland within six months of diagnosis.
What can I claim for?
In Queensland, claims for compensation for silicosis are either brought as a workers’ compensation claim with WorkCover Queensland or a claim for damages.
- Claims for damages can be made up of the following components:
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of life expectancy
- Past and future out-of-pocket expenses
- Past economic loss and lost superannuation
- Future lost earning capacity and future lost superannuation
- Personal care and domestic assistance
- Paid personal care and domestic assistance
- Inability to provide care to a third party
- Legal costs (depending on the type of claim)
Do I need a lawyer?
It is recommended that anyone who has been diagnosed with silicosis should seek independent legal advice regarding their particular circumstances and their potential entitlements.