The reporting makes it clear: the silicosis crisis is back, and it’s particularly acute for stonemasons and other tradespeople. What happened?
In the mid-1990s, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) both announced initiatives to rid the world of silicosis, a preventable disease resulting from chronic occupational exposure to silica dust, by 2030.
The initiatives launched to great fanfare, but the limited data suggests that any initial momentum they created quickly petered out. In fact, a 2015 study of South African gold miners actually found no decrease in the prevalence of silicosis from the mid-1980s to the late 2000s.
Now, in Australia, things are getting critical, as well. On the contemporary events broadcast, A Current Affair, respiratory physician, Dr Ryan Hoy declared the present crisis “unprecedented,” warning that silicosis was even worse than asbestosis. Besides acute, accelerated, and chronic variants of silicosis, prolonged exposure to silica dust can also cause chronic bronchitis, emphysema, kidney damage, scleroderma, and lung cancer.
Indeed, workplace safety regulators are showing increasing alarm. Workplace Health and Safety Queensland issued some 500-plus compliance notices to stonecutter premises (alone), after several cases of silicosis were reported in the state last year. And just last week, federal regulator, Safe Work Australia, sensing the matter was reaching crisis levels, finished soliciting public comment on recommended values for respirable crystalline silica and coal dust.
PCBUs now wait for further state action. But it should be noted that the re-emergence of a preventable, work-related disease like silicosis speaks to the way PCBUs process occupational health and safety data and make safety management decisions.
Though employers justifiably invest in injury management systems and protocols, the overwhelming share of work-related mortality doesn’t come from injury. It comes from work-related diseases. According to 2017 global estimates put out by the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, 2.4 million out of a total, estimated 2.78 million annual work-related deaths came from work-related diseases. That’s nearly 90 percent.
Even high-income countries, like Australia, the U.S., and New Zealand, have a much higher work-related fatality burden from cancers and circulatory diseases (53 percent) than they do from accidents. Additionally, work-related cancers alone account for the majority of safety costs; in the EU, for instance, the total adds up to €119.5 billion, almost one percent of the economic bloc’s entire gross domestic product (GDP).
Since most of these illnesses are preventable, we’re forced to ask, what’s going on, here? How can Safety teams retool their strategies, policies, and practices so as to reduce the physical and fiscal toll of workplace illness?
The first step teams should take is simple prioritization. Injury and illness alike have massive cost implications to employers and workers. But from the data, the economic impact of work-related illnesses and diseases is significantly higher.
And therefore, Safety teams must act accordingly. What specific measures should they take? Periodic incident health checks as part of pre-planned illness reduction programs can help, for starters. So too, can monitoring the status of known worker illness conditions and tracking exposure hours for direct workers and contractors working with/near hazardous materials.
Finally, all of these aspects of environmental health and safety (plus, many more) should be managed in unified incident and risk management technology. That way teams can better reduce risks, save time, make better informed decisions throughout the risk management life cycle, and respond to incidents more effectively.
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The Lancet Respiratory Medicine: The world is failing on silicosis.
David Knight et al., BMC Public Health: Trends in silicosis prevalence and the healthy worker effect among gold miners in South Africa: a prevalence study with follow up of employment status.
Ashley Wick, 9News: Deadly lung disease affecting tradies ‘worse than asbestosis’.
Safe Work Australia: Crystalline silica and silicosis.
Safe Work Australia: Workplace exposure standards review.
Päivi Hämäläinen et al., Workplace Safety and Health Institute: Global Estimates of Occupational Accidents and Work-related Illnesses 2017.
Sandy Smith, Work-Related Illnesses and Injuries Cost EU €476 Billion a Year: EHS Today.