WorkSafe insurers have accepted a compensation claim for an employee who was diagnosed with lupus after being exposed to toxic silica dust, in what lawyers believe could be an Australia-first decision.
Lupus is an inflammatory disease which causes the immune system to attack its own tissues. It can affect the heart, lungs and brain.
Dianne Adams, 58, is one of seven people who claim they developed autoimmune conditions after working at silica milling factories in Dandenong and Lang Lang.
Ms Adams’s compensation claim was initially rejected.
But a revised decision handed down on March 3 means she no longer has to live without heating or internet at her regional property in Victoria.
“I’ve been on the dole for 10 years because I was unable to work,” Ms Adams told ABC Radio Melbourne.
“[Getting compensation] feels good.”
What is silica?
Sometimes dubbed the new asbestos, crystalline silica is a mineral found in materials, including rock and engineered stone.
The link between exposure to silica dust and permanent lung damage is well established.
Now Shine Lawyers have successfully drawn a connection to silica exposure and a number of autoimmune conditions including lupus, scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis.
“This is an Australian first,” head of dust and diseases litigation Roger Singh said.
Ms Adams worked at the Lang Lang silica milling factory processing minerals for almost 20 years.
According to Shine Lawyers she encountered “substantial exposure” to silica dust during her employment.
In 2009, Ms Adams developed lupus and a year later she was diagnosed with a lung disease that has since been recognised as silicosis.
Mr Singh said the medical conditions had “extinguished her earning capacity” and the compensation could be “life changing”.
“Dianne has been suffering in silence for over a decade with this condition,” Mr Singh said.
They now plan to sue Ms Adams’s former employer for negligence.
What is being done to protect workers?
Awareness of the dangers of exposure to silica dust from engineered stone have increased dramatically over the past decade.
In 2019 WorkSafe Victoria banned the dry cutting of engineered stone, in a bid to protect workers from developing silicosis.
When engineered stone products are cut, a very fine dust containing up to 95 per cent crystalline silica is released into the air.
“Exposure can result in silicosis, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, kidney damage and scleroderma,” a WorkSafe spokesperson said.
Last month, the Victorian government said more than 1,000 workers from the stonemason industry had registered for a free health check-up, as part of their action plan to protect workers from silica dust.
Workplace Safety minister Ingrid Stitt urged all past and present stonemasons to come forward.
“Our free health assessments mean those diagnosed with this deadly disease get the treatment they need as soon as possible,” she said.