An audit of Queensland’s manufacturing stone industry has revealed 98 workers have contracted the potentially deadly lung disease silicosis — 15 of those terminal — with more than 550 workplace breaches in what health experts are calling a major epidemic.
The youngest sufferer diagnosed so far was 23 years old and had worked in the industry for six years.
The audit was ordered by the Queensland Government in late 2018, after it emerged a handful of stonemasons had been diagnosed with the incurable disease.
Over the four-month clampdown, workshops known to fabricate engineered stone benchtops were given 552 breach notices for inappropriate workplace cleaning practices, dry-cutting of engineered stone, and inadequate protective equipment.
Ten businesses or people were also fined a total of $36,000, for failing to comply with their improvement notices.
Silicosis is an incurable and often fatal lung disease caused by breathing dust containing fragments of crystalline silica — found in manufactured stone kitchen benchtops and bathroom vanities.
Figures obtained by the ABC show 98 workers had been officially confirmed with the disease in Queensland — 15 of them were at a level considered to be terminal.
Gold Coast stonemason Anthony White, who turned 36 last year, was diagnosed with silicosis in 2017.
Mr White’s deteriorating condition has seen him being admitted to intensive care in hospital for treatment.
Brisbane physician Dr Graeme Edwards has been testing the lungs of hundreds of stone workers and predicted the health crisis would be worse than asbestosis.
“We’re talking about a major epidemic that we don’t fully appreciate right now — it’s absolutely in a league of its own,” Dr Edwards said.
“From a clinician’s perspective this is worse than asbestos, because asbestos affects people at the end their working life and into their retirement — where this particular disease is affecting young workers, people with dependent children, with wives and a whole working life expectation before them.”
“The social and psychological impact is so greater than what we have traditionally seen with any of the dust-related diseases.”
Nearly 800 workers to be tested, costing $1.5 million
Across Queensland, 799 stonemasons have been referred to have lung testing, at a cost of $2,000 each.
Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said the cost of the screening was being paid by WorkCover Queensland.
“WorkCover Queensland is funding the immediate health screening for workers, or former workers, who have been exposed to silica from engineered stone over an extended period of time,” she said.
“Workers with symptoms of silicosis are being prioritised through the health screening process.”
But Dr Edwards feared doctors were struggling to cope, as the numbers to be tested continued to grow.
“This is going to have a major impact on the public health system,” he said.”We’re already taxing the capacity of my colleagues in respiratory medicine to even deal with the issues of today for these people who we’re diagnosing at the moment.”
The Queensland Government said it was not aware of any workers who had yet died from the disease, but acknowledged many would have to receive lung transplants to survive.
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