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What is silicosis, and why are doctors so concerned?

With an alarming number of cases being confirmed across the country, doctors say silicosis could be the next occupational lung crisis to hit Australia since the asbestos disaster.

Here's what you need to know about the disease, and why some workers may not know they have it.

What is silicosis?
Accelerated silicosis is an aggressive and incurable form of lung disease which traditionally affects construction workers, farmers, miners and engineers.

It is caused by breathing in unsafe levels of silica dust, which can scar your lungs and cause them to stiffen.

What is silica dust?
Silica is contained in construction materials such as concrete, bricks, tiles, sandstone and granite.

When those materials are worked on (drilled, cut, crushed and so on) tiny particles of silica are released into the air.

These particles can be so fine you may not know you are breathing them in.

Doctors are so worried about engineered stone because of the high silica concentration of up to 90 per cent..

With an alarming number of cases being confirmed across the country, doctors say silicosis could be the next occupational lung crisis to hit Australia since the asbestos disaster.

Here's what you need to know about the disease, and why some workers may not know they have it.

What is silicosis?

Accelerated silicosis is an aggressive and incurable form of lung disease which traditionally affects construction workers, farmers, miners and engineers.

It is caused by breathing in unsafe levels of silica dust, which can scar your lungs and cause them to stiffen.

What is silica dust?

Silica is contained in construction materials such as concrete, bricks, tiles, sandstone and granite.

When those materials are worked on (drilled, cut, crushed and so on) tiny particles of silica are released into the air.

These particles can be so fine you may not know you are breathing them in.

Doctors are so worried about engineered stone because of the high silica concentration of up to 90 per cent.

Engineered stone is a composite material made of crushed stone bound together by an adhesive.

What are the symptoms of silicosis?

Silicosis causes shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue and a severe cough.

But symptoms often do not present in the early stages of the disease, so it can go undetected for years.

There are three common types of silicosis:

  • Chronic — occurs after at least 10 years of exposure
  • Accelerated — results from higher exposure levels and 5-10 years of exposure
  • Acute — develops from weeks or months of very high exposure

Tahir Ozkul covered with dust after cutting stone

How prevalent is silicosis in Australia?

It usually takes decades of breathing in silica dust to develop silicosis, according to WorkCover Queensland, but the disease is more prevalent than you might think.

The Cancer Council says about 587,000 Australian workers were exposed to silica dust while on the job in 2011.

About 5,758 of those are estimated to develop lung cancer in the future as a result of that exposure.

Can silicosis be prevented?

Construction workers can limit their exposure to silica dust by wearing protective masks and using tools which collect dust.

Dr Graeme Edwards, senior occupational physician

Wetting down tools and materials can also help supress dust particles, and vacuuming is recommended over sweeping while cleaning up.

In Queensland, "dry cutting" engineered stone is banned due to the dangerous level of dust it releases.

But the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) wants the technique banned in all states.

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Australia

Michelle Guthrie suing ABC after being dumped as managing director

Former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie is taking the broadcaster to court over her dismissal, with sources confirming she will claim the board “had no reason to trigger the termination clause”.

Key points

Ms Guthrie was sacked last month, mid-way through her five-year tenure
At the time of her sacking, Ms Guthrie said she was considering her legal options
By the end of that week, the broadcaster's chairman Justin Milne had resigned

Ms Guthrie has begun the formal legal process and lodged paperwork at the start of this week.

A spokesperson for Ms Guthrie told the ABC she had lodged a claim with the Fair Work Commission, but did not confirm what damages were being sought.

The ABC also confirmed Ms Guthrie had made a complaint, but according to a spokesperson, “details of the complaint are not a matter of public record”.

Ms Guthrie was last month sacked from the position, mid-way through her five-year tenure.

At the time of her departure, then-ABC chairman Justin Milne..

Former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie is taking the broadcaster to court over her dismissal, with sources confirming she will claim the board "had no reason to trigger the termination clause".

Key points

  • Ms Guthrie was sacked last month, mid-way through her five-year tenure
  • At the time of her sacking, Ms Guthrie said she was considering her legal options
  • By the end of that week, the broadcaster's chairman Justin Milne had resigned

Ms Guthrie has begun the formal legal process and lodged paperwork at the start of this week.

A spokesperson for Ms Guthrie told the ABC she had lodged a claim with the Fair Work Commission, but did not confirm what damages were being sought.

The ABC also confirmed Ms Guthrie had made a complaint, but according to a spokesperson, "details of the complaint are not a matter of public record".

Ms Guthrie was last month sacked from the position, mid-way through her five-year tenure.

At the time of her departure, then-ABC chairman Justin Milne said directors had resolved it was not in the best interests of the broadcaster for Ms Guthrie to continue to lead the organisation.

He said the board had made the decision in the interest of "the millions of Australians who engage with ABC content every week".

He would not be drawn on exactly what had led to the decision "out of respect" to Ms Guthrie, however when pressed, said her "leadership style" had been a factor.

At the time, Ms Guthrie said she felt her termination was unjustified and that she was considering her legal options.

"While my contract permits the board to terminate my appointment without cause and with immediate effect, I believe there is no justification for the board to trigger that termination clause," she said.

"At no point have any issues been raised with me about the transformation being undertaken, the Investing in Audiences strategy, and my effectiveness in delivering against that strategy."

Ms Guthrie was sacked on Monday, September 24, and by the end of the week Mr Milne had also resigned amid accusations he interfered in the broadcaster's editorial independence.

In the days after Ms Guthrie's acrimonious departure, explosive reports in Fairfax and News Limited publications claimed Mr Milne had urged the then-managing director to sack two prominent reporters because the Government "hated" them.

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Unions furious about Government’s decision to join casual workers court case

Related Story: Unions slam push for 'perma-flexi' workers that would see casual loading slashed

The Federal Government has joined a court case trying to stop casual workers “double dipping” on leave entitlements, arguing recent decisions have caused “anxiety” among small businesses around the country.

Jobs Minister Kelly O'Dwyer said a case currently before the Federal Court risked allowing casual workers to claim leave entitlements on top of their casual pay loading.

“It's generally one or the other, but not both, and the certainty needs to be made very clear,” Ms O'Dwyer said.

“That's why the Commonwealth is intervening in this particular case, small businesses need that certainty.

“Each and every day they face decisions about whether or not they employ people, and that is somebody's future.”

Labour hire firm WorkPac has brought the case against an employee, after the Federal Court ruled against the company in a similar dispute to allow a cas..

Related Story: Unions slam push for 'perma-flexi' workers that would see casual loading slashed

The Federal Government has joined a court case trying to stop casual workers "double dipping" on leave entitlements, arguing recent decisions have caused "anxiety" among small businesses around the country.

Jobs Minister Kelly O'Dwyer said a case currently before the Federal Court risked allowing casual workers to claim leave entitlements on top of their casual pay loading.

"It's generally one or the other, but not both, and the certainty needs to be made very clear," Ms O'Dwyer said.

"That's why the Commonwealth is intervening in this particular case, small businesses need that certainty.

"Each and every day they face decisions about whether or not they employ people, and that is somebody's future."

Labour hire firm WorkPac has brought the case against an employee, after the Federal Court ruled against the company in a similar dispute to allow a casual truck driver to claim leave entitlements.

"This is a new test case particularly looking at the offset arrangements," Ms O'Dwyer said.

"I am intervening in this case to clarify what was not clarified in the previous court decision.

"The anxiety that this has created among small businesses right across the country is one that needs to be settled and settled very quickly."

Unions are furious with Ms O'Dwyer's decision, accusing the Minister of fundamentally misunderstanding both the law and the circumstances of the case.

Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) President Michele O'Neil said the truck driver in the first case had been employed for two-and-a-half years, and was paid 30 per cent less than permanent workers at the company.

"What the company did was, instead of employing him as a permanent worker as they should have, they used a labour hire firm to bring him in on a rate that was 30 per cent less," Ms O'Neil said.

"So how is that worker doing anything other than ensuring that his rights are protected? And that's what the court has done.

"The court has looked at the circumstances and said, 'This isn't casual, this is fake casual and he's entitled to be paid his accrued annual leave'."

She said Ms O'Dwyer was wasting taxpayer funds, and was simply backing big business.

"The Minister doesn't understand the law, this is not that unusual a decision," Ms O'Neil said.

"There's been more than 20 years of precedent cases like this where the courts have said if you enter into a sham, if you have someone that's employed long term, if you have someone that's on a regular shift, regular hours, then you can't just call that person a casual and get away with it.

"So for the Minister to suggest, and for the business lobby to suggest that somehow this is an unusual case that has put at risk the whole employment of casuals is wrong."

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The South Tyrol question, explained

A South Tyrolean separatist holds a sticker saying: “South Tyrol will be free!” Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

South Tyrol, known to Italians as Alto Adige, has been a bone of contention between Austria and Italy for decades. Here's what you need to know about the latest dispute.

The Austrian government has angered Italy with plans to offer dual citizenship to the majority German-speaking population of South Tyrol province.

As voters elect the province's parliament this weekend, with dual citizenship a hot-button issue during the election campaign, here are some facts about a region where many still feel a deep affinity to Austria.

What is South Tyrol's status?

South Tyrol, or Alto Adige in Italian, covers an area of around 7,400 square kilometres and has a population of around 500,000.

It formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for 550 years until it was ceded to Italy in 1919 just after World War I. After World War II, South Tyrol and the neighbourin..

A South Tyrolean separatist holds a sticker saying: "South Tyrol will be free!" Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

South Tyrol, known to Italians as Alto Adige, has been a bone of contention between Austria and Italy for decades. Here's what you need to know about the latest dispute.

The Austrian government has angered Italy with plans to offer dual citizenship to the majority German-speaking population of South Tyrol province.

As voters elect the province's parliament this weekend, with dual citizenship a hot-button issue during the election campaign, here are some facts about a region where many still feel a deep affinity to Austria.

What is South Tyrol's status?

South Tyrol, or Alto Adige in Italian, covers an area of around 7,400 square kilometres and has a population of around 500,000.

It formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for 550 years until it was ceded to Italy in 1919 just after World War I. After World War II, South Tyrol and the neighbouring province of Trentino formed the autonomous region of Trentino-Alto Adige.

The rights of the German- and Ladin-speaking minorities were officially protected under the 1948 Autonomy Statute. But the South Tyrolean People's Party began pushing for greater provincial autonomy in the mid-1950s, and in the 1960s German-speaking militants even carried out a series of sometimes deadly bomb attacks against symbols of Italian state authority.

A revised statute came into force in 1972, devolving most powers to the provinces and setting up power-sharing between the linguistic groups in South Tyrol.

Around 65 percent of South Tyroleans identify themselves as German speakers, 27 percent Italian and four percent Ladin, a Romance language.

Are people happy with the current status quo?

Most people seem to be. The Open Democracy website reports that the proportion of South Tyroleans
comfortable with "socio-political cohabitation" between the linguistic groups rose from eight percent in 1991 to 53 percent by 2014.

While many parties representing German- and Ladin-speakers still have pro-independence statutes, the province is proud it is frequently held up as a model of peaceful cohabitation.

READ ALSO: Italy's South Tyrol: where an identity crisis lingers

Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

What is Austria's proposal?

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's idea is to offer Austrian passports to South Tyrol's German- and Ladin-speaking populations, but not to Italian speakers. But Vienna has not spelt out in detail who would be eligible.

Guenther Pallaver, political science professor at Innsbruck University, sees two possibilities.

"The first would be historical or genealogical, where the applicant must prove that their parents or grandparents were citizens of the former Austrian Empire," Pallaver said. "But as successive generations pass, such a lineage becomes increasingly difficult to prove."

The second variant would be ethnic and linguistic. "South Tyroleans must officially choose which linguistic group they belong to. But no language tests are carried out to verify a person's fluency," Pallaver said.

Another complication is that Austria does not permit dual nationality.

Who is for and against?

Most parties representing German- and Ladin-speakers are in favour, while most of the Italian parties are against, echoing Rome's position.

South Tyrol's Green Party says excluding Italian speakers would be problematic and could fuel resentment between the different language groups.

Some opponents also argue the scheme could be used as a back door for migrants to gain Austrian nationality.

Is a solution likely any time soon?

With no concrete proposal on the table from Vienna and fierce resistance in Rome, no solution is in sight in the near term, says Marc Roeggla, researcher in minority rights at the EURAC institute in Bolzano.

"It's very, very difficult to say. I could say it will happen within the next few years." But it all depends on what solutions Austria puts forward, he says.

READ ALSO: Italy and Austria at odds over South Tyrol dual-citizenship


Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

By AFP's Simon Morgan

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