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Recent amendments have been made to Victoria’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (‘OHS Regulations’) which are aimed at protecting employees from exposure to crystalline silica dust that causes silicosis. The changes include the introduction of a new prohibition on uncontrolled cutting, grinding and abrasive polishing of engineered stone that produces silica dust. The amendment — including the new ban — has been in effect since 20 August 2019. It was introduced as part of broader efforts to address the prevalence of silicosis, which has emerged as the next wave of lung disease for workers.

Crystalline silica and its harmful effects

Crystalline silica is a mineral commonly found in construction materials such as bricks, concrete, sandstone, granite and tiles. Cutting, grinding or drilling these materials produces extremely fine dust particles — often not visible — which contain respirable crystalline silica. Breathing in this dust can lead to the development of a number of deadly diseases, including lung cancer and silicosis.

Australia has seen a recent spike in the number of silicosis claims — among young stonemasons in particular — following the growth in popularity for engineered stone products as a more affordable alternative to granite and marble. A progressive and often fatal lung disease, silicosis causes inflammation and scarring inside the lungs and can have a devastating impact. The disease is preventable and the Victorian Government has introduced a number of recent measures aimed at addressing this issue.

What is ‘engineered stone’?

Engineered stone is also known as reconstituted stone. The amended OHS Regulations define ‘engineered stone’ as ‘manufactured composite stone that contains resins and has a crystalline silica content of at least 80 per cent’. Engineered stone of this kind has been commonly used in kitchen, bathroom and laundry benchtops. Suppliers of stone will also provide safety data sheets that outline exactly how much crystalline silica makes up the stone.

The new prohibition

Last months’ changes to the OHS Regulations include the introduction of a new ban on uncontrolled cutting, grinding and abrasive polishing of engineered stone. Duty holders — which includes employers, self-employed people and those who manage or control a workplace — are legally obligated to ensure that certain requirements are complied with, including that:

a power tool is not used to cut, grind or abrasively polish engineered stone, unless the tool:

  1. has an integrated water delivery system that supplies a continuous feed of water (on-tool water suppression), or
  2. is fitted with on-tool extraction attached to a HEPA filtered dust class H vacuum cleaner (or similar system that captures the dust generated).

Other obligations

It is important to recognise that the new ban exists alongside continuing requirements that are placed on employers and other duty holders by OHS Regulations.

Duty holders must control the risks of employee exposure to crystalline silica dust. When determining what controls are appropriate, duty holders must consider the hierarchy of controls that is set out under ‘Part 4.1 — Hazardous Substances’ of the OHS Regulations.

Employers need to first determine if the risk of exposure to crystalline silica dust can be eliminated. Where this is not possible, risks must be reduced as far as is reasonably practicable, using a number of different control methods. Consult WorkSafe materials for a comprehensive overview of obligations under the OHS Regulations

In the context of using power tools on engineered stone products, the law requires particular control measures to be used. Where controls such as on-tool water suppression or an on-tool extraction system are not reasonably practicable, the use of power tools must be controlled through local exhaust ventilation (LEV) and the provision of respiratory protective equipment. Protective equipment must comply with certain standards, so be sure to consult WorkSafe materials.

Exposure standards

If you are an employee who may be exposed to silica dust in the workplace, it’s important that you are aware of exposure standards.

The current exposure standard set for respirable crystalline silica dust is 0.1 mg/m3 as a TWA (time-weighted average) airborne concentration over 8 hours. However, this standard is outdated, having been implemented in 2005, and earlier in August Safe Work Australia (SWA) voted for a new standard of 0.05mg/m3 to be introduced over three years.

The current standard is also being reviewed as part of SWA’s broader review of Australia’s workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants, which is scheduled to be finalised by March 2020. WorkSafe Victoria has recommended that, in the meantime, employees are not exposed to levels above 0.02 mg/m3 as a TWA. In August last year, the Victorian Trades Hall Council launched its Silica Standard of 0.025mg/m3.

If employers are unsure whether their employees are exposed to levels of silica dust above the standard — or they cannot establish whether there is a risk to their workers’ health without monitoring — then they are required to conduct regular air monitoring. Employers are also required by law to conduct health monitoring if they are a stone benchtop fabrication workplace or if exposure to silica is likely to affect employee health.

What you can do if you have been exposed to silica

If you believe you have been exposed to silica dust you can register your exposure to enable you to have a record. This can be helpful if you need to bring a silicosis claim for compensation in the future. You can register your silica exposure with Gordon Legal.

Our expert dust diseases team are the most experienced in Victoria. If you need legal advice, or have any questions regarding potential silica dust exposure, get in touch with our friendly, experienced team today on 1800 21 22 23. We’re here to help.

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