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Action Pledged On 'Deadly' Silocosis Dust, But Is It Enough?

State and federal regulators have agreed to reduce the amount of silica dust that tradies are exposed to at work -- but not as low as some had hoped. 

The Victorian government was backed by Cancer Council Australia in its push to lower the national mandatory limit for silica dust exposure to around one-fifth of its current level, to prevent the deadly lung disease silicosis and lung cancer.

At a meeting with national body Safe Work Australia in Sydney on Wednesday, state and federal workplace regulators voted to halve the current standard from 0.1 mg per cubic metre to 0.05 mg per cubic metre.

Western Australia and the ACT backed Victoria's bid to bring the limit down to 0.02 mg, similar to the standard in the U.S., but were unsuccessful.

Photo: The Project

"I'm really, really concerned that we will not get a decision out of the Safe Work Australia meeting today that represents the best health evidence," Victorian Minister for Workplace Safety Jill Hennessy said ahead of the meeting, comparing the issue to asbestos.

"We must not make that same mistake when it comes to silicosis."

What Is Silicosis?

Silica dust -- or crystalline sillica - is found in stone, rock, sand, gravel and clay, along with some bricks, tiles and concrete.

Exposure to unsafe levels of the tiny dust particles -- about 100 times smaller than a grain of sand -- can lead to the development of lung cancer or silicosis, an irreversible scarring and stiffening of the lung.

READ MORE: 'It's Lethal': Industry Leaving Tradies Exposed To Dust Disease

The lung disease had all but disappeared about a half a century ago until artificial stone materials, with higher concentrations of silica, were introduced as a cheap alternative to marble and granite.

"We are now seeing an increasing number of people who work with artificial stone materials used for kitchen, bathroom and laundry benchtops diagnosed with accelerated silicosis after only three to 10 years," Dr Graham Edwards, occupational physician and Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP), told 10 daily last September.

What is Australia Doing About It?

An outbreak in cases of accelerated silicosis in Australia last year sparked calls from health bodies and lawyers to address the nationwide epidemic.

In May, the Victorian government launched a compliance and enforcement blitz targeting 300 high-risk workplaces across the state.

Free health screenings were offered to the state's 1400 stonemasons, and a ban was enforced on uncontrolled dry cutting of engineered stoned -- a practice already banned in Queensland due to the high levels of silica that can be inhaled when materials are cut when they are dry.

Silicosis is caused by inhaling dust from manufactured stone benchtops. Photo: Getty

Queensland also acted swiftly, auditing more than 800 workers in the manufacturing stone industry and ordering a crackdown of stone bench top fabricators. In July, the state government announced all instances of dust diseases will now be recorded in a new public register.

The federal Government has announced a $5 million 'National Dust Disease Taskforce' to discover who has the disease and who is at risk of developing it.

But there have been calls for even stricter national standards.

Why Do We Need A National Exposure Standard?

While not all exposed workers will develop dust diseases, the risk increases with long-term or repeated high-level exposure.

Cancer Council Australia also wants the mandatory limit for silica dust exposure to be much lower.

"We think it should be down to 0.02 mg per cubic metre, based on the studies available to us on the risk of silicosis and cancer at different levels of silica exposure," Professor Tim Driscoll, Cancer Council's Occupational and Environmental Cancer Committee Chair, told 10 daily. 

"The lower the exposure, the lower the risk. For anything that causes cancer, that should always be the guiding principal."

Ahead of the meeting on Wednesday, Victoria's Workplace Safety Minister Jill Hennessy was doubtful the state's push would succeed. Photo: AAP

Driscoll said discussions are a "balancing act" between resources required to lower the standard, and the level of risk to exposed workers which policymakers and the community are prepared to accept.

READ MORE: The Deadly Dust Disease Putting Tradies At Risk 

"I think there has been some resistance from industry who are concerned about what changes to practices are required to get to that level," he said.

In a statement to 10 daily, a spokesperson for Safe Work Australia said its members had a "productive meeting" on Wednesday.

"Safe Work Australia Members regularly consider a range of work health and safety, and workers’ compensation matters, including the workplace exposure standards," the spokesperson said.

"[We] will progress any recommendations to Commonwealth, state and territory ministers responsible for work health and safety as the relevant decision-makers."

With AAP.