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As of January 2021, WorkCover Queensland completed 1,053 health screenings of stonemasons exposed to silica dust. Of those workers, 190 people were diagnosed with silicosis. 

Unfortunately, despite the increased awareness of silicosis and Government measures to increase testing this figure is not a true representation of the number of cases of silicosis in Queensland. 

Because of the low number of individuals getting tested and the low number of reporting it is impossible to know the true magnitude of the prevalence of silicosis.

Silicosis is extremely fatal and it is estimated that workers with severe silicosis will lose an average of almost 12 years of life. If you have suffered silicosis as a result of the negligence of your employer then you may be eligible to seek workers compensation for the loss and damage you have suffered. 

Speak to our team of expert personal injury lawyers today and find out how we can help you make a claim for compensation.

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What is silicosis and how is it caused?

Silicosis is a lung disease that develops after exposure from crystalline silica. Crystalline silica can be found in the following but is not limited to:

  • Quartz
  • Sand
  • Stone
  • Soil
  • Granite
  • Brick
  • Cement
  • Grout
  • Mortar
  • Bitumen
  • Engineered stone products.

Exposure to silica occurs through the cutting, sanding, polishing or excavating of these products causing the dust particles to be released into the atmosphere and into the worker’s lungs. 

Because the silica particles are incredibly fine (100 times smaller than a grain of sand), it is difficult for our lungs to sufficiently remove them which can cause silica to become trapped in the lungs and cause irritation and damage. The more silica that is breathed in, the more damage it will cause which can trigger the development of scar tissue and inflammation.

Common silicosis symptoms

Unfortunately workers who have been exposed to silica may initially be asymptomatic with symptoms developing years later (in some cases after the exposure has ceased). 

Exposure to silica (whether it be short term or long term exposure) causes damage to the lungs and other areas of the body causing an array of symptoms such as:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe cough
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue

Severe silica exposure can cause the development of the following diseases:

  • Acute silicosis: extremely rare but occurs after high levels of silica over a short term (less than a year) causing the lungs to be inflamed, fill with fluid due to scarring and damage, severe respiratory issues, cough fever and weight loss. 
  • Accelerated silicosis: occurs after high levels of exposure over a short period (between 1-10 years) causing inflammation and scarring and severe progression of lung failure and silicosis symptoms.
  • Chronic silicosis: occurs after long-term exposure of silica (20 years or more) causing inflammation and scarring of the lungs leading to respiratory failure.
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Lung cancer
  • Emphysema
  • Scleroderma
  • Kidney disease

If you believe you are suffering from any of the above symptoms it is vital that you see your doctor.

Professions most at risk of silicosis

Professions where the worker has to cut, sand, grind or disturb the particles of materials that have crystalline silica are at a higher risk of exposure. 

Professions that are at a higher risk of exposure can include but is not limited to:

  • Miners are at a high risk of developing the disease due to their role in drilling and mining into the ground and working under ground.
  • Stonemasons are particularly at a higher risk of developing silicosis as a result of their roles in cutting, grinding and polishing engineered stone products which have high levels of crystalline silica.
  • Demolition/Construction workers roles involves excavating into the ground, demolishing buildings which may contain materials with high levels of silica
  • Rail maintenance workers may also have to undertake work which requires them to disturb ground surfaces, cut material which may contain silica and work in environments which contain the substance.

If you work in one of these fields or in an area which involves cutting, grinding, polishing or disturbing material that involves silica you should get tested.

Can CimeXa cause silicosis?

CimeXa is an insecticide dust which is used to treat bed bugs and fleas. It is made up of a high level of synthetic non-crystalline silica. Non-crystalline silica dust does not cause silicosis. While inhalation of CimeXa during use can cause irritation (and should be minimised by wearing a mask) it is safe to use if administered per requirements.

How much exposure to silica causes silicosis?

It is difficult to say how much exposure to silica will cause the disease. Silicosis can develop after short term exposure (less than a year), long term exposure (1-10 years) and chronic exposure (10 years or more).

If you believe you have been exposed to silica and have been experiencing symptoms of silicosis it is important you see your doctor immediately.

Can you get silicosis from one exposure?

As discussed above, acute silicosis develops after a high level of silica exposure over a short period of time. The exposure generally overs over multiple exposures rather than one exposure. Silica exposure results in dust particles being trapped in the individuals lungs and causing damage.

It is incredibly rare to develop silicosis after only one exposure but it is possible. Depending on an individual's health, it is possible that the dust particles from one exposure (especially if it is a high level of exposure) could cause enough damage that an individual can develop silicosis in the future.

Can the lungs remove silica dust?

As silica dust is incredibly fine, it can be difficult for our lungs to effectively remove them as the particles can become trapped. Some particles can be removed through coughing or bringing up phlegm, however, the higher and longer the level of exposure the difficulty in removing it.

How do you know if you have silicosis?

If you work in a profession with high exposure to silica and believe you are suffering from symptoms of silicosis, you should make your employer aware and visit your doctor to discuss your concerns.

There is no specific test to diagnose silicosis and is generally diagnosed after undergoing various tests such as chest X-Ray, CT scan, biopsy, bronchoscopy and other various tests to identify damage to the lungs.

If you believe that you have silicosis it is vital you speak to your doctor and seek the necessary treatment.

Can silicosis be cured?

Unfortunately, the only cure for silicosis is a lung transplant. The effects of silicosis on the lungs are irreversible.  The damage caused by silica will cause inflammation and damage to the lungs and other vital organs (especially where long term or high levels of exposure are prevalent).

Once diagnosed, silicosis symptoms will get progressively worse over time.

Whilst using oxygen, inhalers and/or antibiotics can help alleviate some of the symptoms there is no specific treatment. Accelerated and chronic silicosis can lead to the development of large fibrosis which, without a lung transplant, can be lethal.

Can silicosis be prevented?

Preventative measures are the most effective at reducing a workers exposure to silica. The most effective measures to prevent silicosis are as follows:

  • Using personal protective equipment whilst working with material that had silica such as filtering face masks or respirators, gloves, overalls and or face shields)
  • Undertaking wet cutting and wet-sweeping which involves the process of wetting the product as you cut it and vacuuming the residue whilst wet to reduce the amount of dust that filters in the air.
  • Reducing the amount of cutting required of material but ordering the correct size to reduce the need for cutting of product
  • Washing your face and body after working with or close to silica
  • Changing into clean clothes after working with or close to silica
  • Using products with lower silica percentage
  • Conducting regular health screening to manage exposure to silica

If you are working with products that contain significant levels of silica over a long period of time and there is a significant risk of exposure, you are entitled to regular health screenings by your employer

If you believe you fall under this category, you should speak to your employer immediately and visit your doctor for a health screening.

Can I get workers compensation for silicosis?

If you have been diagnosed with work-related silicosis you may be entitled to compensation.

It is incredibly important that you seek medical attention if you believe you have been exposed to silica or if you believe you have silicosis. If diagnosed with silicosis you have six (6) months from the date of diagnosis to lodge a statutory claim with WorkCover.

In order to lodge a claim with WorkCover you will need to get your doctor to complete a work capacity certificate which is essentially a medical certificate that details your illness. It is also important that you inform your employer or your Work Health and Safety officer about your diagnosis.

Once you have the work capacity certificate, you will then need to fill out an application claim form or submit an online claim to lodge your claim.

Once your claim is lodged WorkCover has 20 business days to decide whether they will accept or reject your claim.

If your claim is accepted you are entitled to receive treatment, reimbursement for medical costs, recovery of weekly earnings, counselling and more to assist you during the claim process.

What is a statutory claim and what will it cover?

If your claim is accepted by WorkCover this begins what is called a statutory claim against WorkCover and is governed by the Worker’s Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003.

If WorkCover approves your application, you will be entitled to:

  • Reimbursement for medical expenses and treatment
  • Weekly compensation to cover weekly earnings
  • Counselling for you and or your family
  • Assistance returning to work
  • Financial hardship assistance

Ultimately, WorkCover’s goal will be to get you back to work (if possible). Once your silicosis has stabilised (that is when your illness has plateaued) then either you or WorkCover can request for you to be assessed by a medical expert to identify whether you will suffer any permanent impairment as a result of the diagnoses. 

If an impairment is found then WorkCover will issue you with a degree of permanent impairment (‘DPI’) in a form called a Notice of Assessment and will generally be accompanied with a lump sum compensation offer. The offer is calculated based on the DPI.

Once you receive your DPI and lump sum offer you have three options:

  • Request a second medical opinion: This involves asking for another medical examiner to conduct the assessment.
  • Accept the offer: If you accept the offer you will lose all right to claim any common law damages against your employer. There will be no other avenue to seek compensation once you accept the offer. It is vital you seek legal advice before accepting any offer.
  • Reject the offer: Reject the offer and pursue a common law claim against your employer through WorkCover Queensland. We can advise and assist you with this option.

There is one occasion where a worker may accept the lump sum offer and still pursue a claim. If your DPI is calculated at 20% or more, you have the option to accept the lump sum offer and also make a common law claim.  

If you have been diagnosed with silicosis and have commenced a statutory claim, we encourage you to speak to one of our expert personal injury lawyers to identify your legal options.

Can I commence a common law compensation claim for silicosis and what can I claim?

If you have been diagnosed with work-related silicosis you have the option of pursuing a statutory claim against WorkCover Queensland or pursuing a common law claim.

Unlike the statutory claim which is a ‘no fault’ scheme, if you pursue a common law claim against your employer you will need to show that the silicosis was as a result of your employers’ negligence.

In commencing a claim, you will have to submit a claim form describing the negligence against your employer, the illness you now suffer and any losses you have suffered.

This claim form is called a Notice of Claim for Damage and once delivered starts a set of informal processes that must be completed before settlement.

You will be able to make a claim for damages for:

  • the pain and suffering you have and are enduring;
  • any loss of past and future earnings due to the illness;
  • reimbursement for any treatment you have paid for; and
  • any future treatment you may need.

The amount you can claim for in a common law claim is greater than a statutory claim. The downside is that the process can be incredibly complex and difficult. If you wish to pursue a common law claim speak to one of our expert personal injury lawyers to get advice on how to pursue a claim.

Who pays for silicosis compensation claims?

Generally most employers are insured by WorkCover Queensland. In some circumstances an employer may be self-insured and so their process may be slightly different from WorkCover Queensland however they are both bound by the same legislation.

Regardless of who the insurer is, a silicosis compensation claim is against the insurer and paid out by the insurer.

What are the time limits for silicosis claims?

If you wish to claim worker’s compensation you have six (6) months from the date of diagnosis to lodge your claim.

If you also wish to make a claim for common law compensation you have three (3) years from the date of your diagnosis in which to commence a claim. If you do not commence a common law claim (by filing appropriate forms with the court) within the time limits you will lose all legal rights to pursue a claim.

It is vital that you speak with a lawyer if you believe you have been diagnosed with silicosis and wish to pursue a claim. Speak to our team of expert personal injury lawyers today and find out how we can help you make a claim for compensation.

Posted by Sarah Truter Solicitor

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Disclaimer: Please note, this content is designed as general information only and does not constitute legal advice. While we make every effort to fact check and keep items up to date, legislation may change from time to time. For advice on your specific situation then please contact us.
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