‘Silent killer’ plaguing our tradies
LAST month, news.com.au reported on an alarming spike in young, fit tradespeople being struck down by a deadly disease right across the country.
A recent increase in cases of silicosis - a progressive, incurable condition so dangerous it has been dubbed "the new asbestos" - has even sparked calls for a national ban on dry cutting techniques in workshops.
Silicosis, which can take up to 15 years to develop and includes symptoms like shortness of breath, cough, fever, cyanosis (bluish skin) and frequent chest infections which lead to lung transplants and even death, can be caused by long-term exposure to silica dust, which is created when artificial or engineered stone is cut.
Since publishing the article, news.com.au has been inundated with emails from whistleblowers who want to put the spotlight on practices linked to silicosis, as well as other worrying habits within Australia's trades.
One reader, who spoke to news.com.au on condition of anonymity, claimed breathing masks were rarely supplied or enforced, and complaints to managers were regularly ignored.
Another said the problem was also occurring in Aussie homes and not just in workshops, with sinks and cooktops often being cut into and installed on-site, creating dust.
"The installers have no bloody regard for any other trades onsite and often the house is filled with this dust and stench," the reader claimed.
"This has been a problem for a long time and could possibly affect more than just these clown stone installers."
Another man, who lived next door to a Sydney building site over an 18-month period, slammed the "ignorance and complacency regarding silicosis in the building industry".
He said "no attempt" had been made to lessen dust caused by sandstone removal on the site, even though sandstone was 96 per cent silica, and that his local council and SafeWork had been no help.
"I took photos clearly showing the large circular saws cutting this, and the complete dust engulfment of our house," he said.
"I pity the poor ignorant workers who have probably moved onto the next job to continue the practice.
"This practice has to be fully exposed and like asbestos it is a silent killer. There will be people dying because of this."
Another said even everyday DIY-ers could be putting themselves at risk through exposure to instant cement, which he claimed contained "loads of finely-ground silicon" which could be inhaled.
"It's not just tradies at risk, everyone doing DIY is," he warned.
And another said the problem was also rampant during rail industry track maintenance.
"There is very high levels of silica exposure in the ballast dust operation that operators have been exposed to for years," he said.
"Ultimately it's about education and awareness; unfortunately Australia and New Zealand are still far behind the rest of the developed world on this topic."
According to James Cook University associate professor Gunther Paul, silicosis is part of a wider group of respiratory diseases, with those in the mining industry also frequently affected by similar serious illnesses.
He said despite a 2017 Queensland Parliamentary inquiry into Coal Workers' Pneumoconiosis (Black Lung) being told silica was "more dangerous than coalmine dust", "very little" had been done in response.
He said there was a "complete systemic failure" of the health surveying system and a lack of dust measurement, occupational hygiene and "very limited prevention" meant most mine and construction workers were unaware of the risk or of their levels of exposure.
Employment law experts Shine Lawyers are now calling for an urgent, Australia-wide ban on dry cutting techniques in workshops along with tougher penalties for any breaches by companies, with the firm now speaking with six Aussie tradespeople who have developed the deadly illness.
Shine Lawyers' dust diseases expert Roger Singh told news.com.au last month we need to learn from the "awful legacy of asbestos" and take action now to prevent potential deaths, and that a parliamentary inquiry was needed.