“WHAT do you do for a job?”
When a young person shows up at the GP with chest pains or breathing difficulties, it could be the most important question the doctor can ask.
If they are stonemasons or bricklayers, or work in demolition, mining, sandblasting or construction, they could have an incurable condition caused by material so dangerous it’s being called “the new asbestos”.
Health experts have warned of an alarming spike in cases of silicosis among Aussie tradies, believed to be linked to cutting engineered or artificial stone products used to make kitchen benchtops.
Silicosis is a progressive, irreversible lung disease caused by long-term exposure to silica dust which can take anywhere from 10 to 30 years to develop. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, cough, fever, cyanosis (bluish skin) and frequent chest infections, which can eventually lead to lung transplants and even death.
“We are encouraging doctors to ask ‘What do you do for a job?’” Shine Lawyers dust diseases expert Roger Singh said in a statement.
“Young men who turn up at the doctor’s office with persistent chest infections or ongoing breathing difficulties could be exposed to dust in the workplace and might be in the early stages of silicosis. We know early detection is key to a better outcome.”
The law firm says it has heard a number of stories in recent months suggesting doctors aren’t well educated enough in the diagnosis of silicosis, meaning it can take months for tradies to get to the right specialists.
One tradie even said the doctors in the hospital hadn’t heard of silicosis. It’s not surprising, given it’s considered an “old” disease and silicosis deaths have been dropping globally.
“We are not criticising doctors at all. This is a disease which had been in decline the world over and is now seeing a re-emergence in certain occupations such as stonemasonry,” Mr Singh said.
“It is not something many current or recently qualified doctors may have seen in their careers. It is also not always the easiest of diseases to identify, either, so it is important that those on the medical frontline ask the question about occupation.
“If your patient is having breathing difficulties and they have worked in one of these jobs then refer them to specialists to check for silicosis. It might help speed up the process for diagnosis and then a care plan can be put together more quickly.”
Shine, which is speaking with at least half a dozen Aussie tradies affected by silicosis, has been calling for an urgent, Australia-wide ban on dry cutting techniques in workshops along with tougher penalties for any breaches by companies.
It’s inviting workers who have been exposed to silica dust in the workplace or who have been diagnosed with the disease to enter their details in its Silicosis Exposure Register to potentially seek compensation.
“We are making good progress on our calls to ban dry cutting of artificial stone in Australia,” Mr Singh said.
“We have now met with Queensland and NSW ministers and have appointments to meet in the ACT and Victoria. Shine Lawyers are committed to seeing dry cutting banned. We’ve been shocked by the volume of calls we have received and want to see this dangerous practice stopped.”
Last month, Gold Coast stonemason Andrew White called for urgent action. The 36-year-old handled and cut artificial stone products for a decade before falling ill.
“I want to make sure no one else has to go through this,” he said.
“It’s been absolutely horrendous for me and my family who have had to watch me get sicker and sicker. Wearing protective gear wasn’t policed at any of my workplaces.
“There was so much dust flying around, you could feel the grit on your teeth and taste the dust in your mouth, but I didn’t think it was a problem. I had no idea it could make you this sick.
“I would personally like to see rules enforced so nobody cuts it dry in any workplace anywhere in Australia. It’s dangerous and it’s putting lives at risk.”