Silica dust in the workplace - Information for workers

Many people die in Australia every year from diseases caused by dust in the workplace.

A wide range of building products including kitchen stone bench tops, concretes, and quarry products contain a mineral known as silica in various quantities. When you cut, grind or drill these products under dry conditions, tiny particles of respirable crystalline silica (RCS) dust can be released into the air. Exposure to RCS dust has been linked to various occupational diseases including silicosis and lung cancer.

RCS is a known carcinogen and is listed as a hazardous chemical under the Northern Territory’s work health and safety laws.

See the NT WorkSafe bulletin Risks associated with Respirable Crystalline Silica for more information.

Employer’s obligations

Under the Work Health and Safety (National Uniform Legislation) Act 2011, a Person Conducting Business or Undertaking (your employer) must identify hazards and assess the risks to workers at the workplace.

Your employer is required to:

  • remove risks where possible
  • manage risks using appropriate control measures if removal is not possible, and
  • provide you with appropriate information, training, instruction, equipment and supervision.

In addition, as RCS is a hazardous chemical in the Northern Territory your employer may need to undertake air monitoring at the workplace and health monitoring of workers that may be exposed to RCS.

A checklist has been developed to help assess the risks and controls to manage the risks of RCS in workplaces. It can be downloaded from the NT WorkSafe website.

What you must do

Under the Work Health and Safety (National Uniform Legislation) Act 2011, you must work safely and follow all reasonable safety requirements of your employer. These include:

  • operating machinery safely
  • complying with the safe work policies and procedures in your workplace
  • informing your employer of safety issues, and
  • correctly using and maintaining any personal protective equipment issued to you.

RCS health monitoring - what workers need to know

The Work Health and Safety (National Uniform Legislation) Regulations 2011 require your employer to ensure that health monitoring is provided to you if you are carrying out ongoing work using, handling, generating or storing hazardous chemicals and there is a significant risk to your health because of exposure to that substance – this includes RCS.

Health monitoring means monitoring of a person to identify changes to their health status because of exposure to hazardous chemical. If you are sent to a GP (or go to your GP at your employer’s expense) for health monitoring associated with RCS be aware that in almost all cases, you will be immediately referred to the Royal Darwin Hospital or the Alice Springs Hospital.

However, your employer may send you directly to a specialist clinic or to a specialist doctor. Regardless it is the responsibility of your employer to cover the costs.

Health monitoring may include:

  • answering questions regarding previous work and medical history and recreational activities and lifestyle (e.g. smoking habits)
  • a physical examination, for example listening to your chest
  • biological and physical tests (e.g. urine or blood samples) or a spirometry (lung function test)
  • imaging (such as x-rays).

The critical point to remember is that this health monitoring does not mean you are sick or are going to get sick.

See the Safe Work Australia guide Health Monitoring for Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals - Guide for workers for more detailed information about the health monitoring process.

What to do if initial testing returns a positive result

If you have contracted a silica-related disease during the course of your employment, you are entitled to make a claim for workers compensation under the Return to Work Act 1986 by submitting a Northern Territory workers compensation claim form. The claim forms are available on NT WorkSafe website.

Your treating doctor should provide a letter and supporting documentation that provides evidence of the diagnosis which should be submitted along with your claim form.