Introduction Exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) causes the serious lung disease silicosis among many workers globally. There was renewed attention to silicosis when new cases were reported among workers involved in the use of engineered stone in bench top manufacturing.
Methods A regulatory verification program was conducted in the State of New South Wales in Australia to investigate exposure of stone workers to RCS, compliance with health surveillance requirements and to improve communication of the health hazards of RCS to poorly informed workers. Airborne RCS exposures were measured in the workers’ breathing zones using cyclone sampling heads for particle size selection. X-ray diffraction (XRD) analysis was performed to assess the silica content of the respirable dust. Compliance with national Work Health and Safety Regulations on health monitoring for RCS exposure, which include annual chest x-rays, were verified at each workplace. Hazard information was developed in consultation with workers and small group education conducted to improve their awareness and knowledge on silica hazards.
Result The Australian Workplace Exposure Standard (WES) of 0.1 mg/m3 for RCS was exceeded in many personal air samples. Workers who had worked in the industry for many years had not undergone a complete health monitoring including chest x-ray and spirometry.
Discussion The WES for RCS is being reviewed and lowered to 0.025 mg/m3 in some countries whilst some industries raise concerns on whether they can practicably achieve this limit. The reliance on chest x-rays and spirometry in the early detection of silicosis has also been queried by numerous case studies and by the Australian inquiry into coal worker pneumoconiosis.
We report our findings and explore whether technological changes result in high RCS exposures and a re-emergence of silicosis among poorly informed workforces. Developing professional collaboration among different disciplines to prevent this deadly disease will be discussed.