February 11, 2021 — A leading dust-control expert says a case of silicosis in a young female office worker is a “terrible reminder” that thousands of Australians are exposed to potentially deadly dust at work and can spread the risk to co-workers, family and friends.
The Australian Workers Union this week revealed the diagnosis of Joanna McNeill, a 34-year-old Melbourne mother of two, whose silicosis was detected through an X-ray check when she returned to work from maternity leave.
In a video statement, Ms McNeill said she worked at Boral Quarries in Melbourne’s east, doing administrative tasks in an office 90 metres from a crushing plant. Silica was not mentioned as a hazard at workplace safety meetings, but she could sometimes “taste” dust at the end of a day.
“This a terrible reminder that respirable dust hazards are most often invisible, they can occur away from the dust-generating activity, and people just don’t understand this risk,” said Melton White, managing director of Melbourne-based Mideco, a de-dusting equipment specialist.
White says the dangers of silica dust have been known to Australians for a century, and gradually the need for frontline workers in mining and quarrying to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) has become better understood.
“But what is still virtually always overlooked is how far from the source that risk can travel. It travels with the assistance of wind and on the workers themselves
,” he said.
“They carry the dust on their clothing into the tea room, into offices, and then they carry it away to their loved ones and friends if they remain wearing that dusty gear.”
Inhaling fine silica or quartz dust – in particles about one-hundredth the size of a grain of sand – can lead to silicosis, an irreversible scarring of the lungs, and the disease can progress to lung cancer.
A 2019 study at five quarries in NSW and Queensland using a Mideco-developed personnel de-dusting device showed alarming levels of respirable crystalline silica dust had been clinging to workers’ clothing.
“The quantity of dust removed from the workers’ clothes per use ranged from 24 to 38 grams. Of this amount, the respirable dust ranged from 7 to 16 grams, with the two highest values coming from the same quarry,” White said. “However, the most concerning value came from a different quarry where 2.6 grams of respirable quartz was removed for each cleaning treatment.”
In the 2019 study, Mideco analysed the dust captured by its Bat Booth de-dusting unit, which uses compressed air to dislodge dust particles from apparel and PPE and traps the contaminating material in cartridges.
Most workers in the survey used the Bat Booth three times per shift, with each session lasting just a few seconds.
According to a British-Irish academic study, a dust-ridden worker doing a low-activity action, like sitting down in a tea room for a drink, would shed 20% of the dust they carry into the surrounding air.
“Exactly how much of that liberated dust the person might breathe in is unknown, but what does get breathed in is there to stay,” White said.
“More physical activity, for example, walking around and visiting an office, would result in substantially more dust being liberated. In one calculation, up to 67% of the dust on them will be released.
“In that scenario, both the worker and those around them would be breathing in the re-liberated dust. It should also be recognised that in many cases the worker would carry it home to their family, as we know has occurred with asbestos-related disease.”
In 1921, concern about dust-induced silicosis in mining and metals industries, following the introduction of the pneumatic drill, led the Australian federal government to set up an Industrial Hygiene Division as part of its new Department of Health.
“Over time, the division was diluted and merged until its original purpose was forgotten,” White said.
Recently, there has been a surge in silicosis cases associated with the cutting of artificial stone benchtops, attributed to the higher silica content of manufactured stone compared with natural rock, as well as poor work safety practices.
A resurgence of “black lung”, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), in Queensland since 2016, decades after it was thought to have been eradicated, also made headlines as a shocking indictment of health protocols in Australian mining.
But White says awareness is still lacking about harmful dust exposure in other everyday occupations, including road building, construction, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and textiles.
The Cancer Council of Australia has estimated that some 600,000 Australians per year are exposed to respirable silica at work.
Mideco refined and developed the Bat Booth technology from a design endorsed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the US federal agency responsible for research and recommendations on work-related injury.
The Mideco Bat Booth, launched in 2018, is an emerging Australian export success story, with units operating in the United States, Canada and South America.
Melton White is available for comment on dust mitigation and Bat Booth technology.
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