Stonemason with terminal lung disease says government must act on silica dust

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A stonemason with terminal lung disease who was exposed to toxic dust while helping to build the Houses of Parliament in Canberra urges the government to act immediately to prevent others from suffering the same fate .

Frank Scott, 52, requires the use of a 24-hour oxygen tank and is on the waiting list for a double lung transplant after being diagnosed with silicosis and scleroderma.

Mr Scott fell ill after breathing in crystalline silica dust while using cast stone from the early 2000s and on earlier projects involving the dry cutting of granite and sandstone.

“I was devastated, to be honest, for many reasons, but one of them was the fact that I couldn’t work anymore because I love my job. I’m passionate about it and really love it,” he said of his 2008 diagnosis.

Silica dust, which can lead to the life-threatening disease silicosis, as well as lung cancer, is produced by various building products, but is most potent in cast stone.

The artificial material is more durable than marble and granite, but contains up to 95% silica.

Frank Scott, 52, suffers from an incurable lung disease after being exposed to silica dust during his career as a stonemason.  Image: Provided
Camera iconFrank Scott, 52, suffers from an incurable lung disease after being exposed to silica dust during his career as a stonemason. Provided Credit: Provided

Mr. Scott has written to federal government ministers urging them to legislate a national licensing regime for cast stone.

Such a program would only authorize the supply of cast stone to companies that have demonstrated compliance with strict safety standards such as wet cutting and personal protective equipment.

“I would say to them, please step up to save the lives of tradespeople and their families the grief they are going through,” Mr Scott said.

“It really affected my family and the people very close to me. They too have been through hell. And that’s the worst feeling I’ve ever had – upsetting people.

In his letter to MPs, Mr Scott called on governments to work together to phase out and eventually ban cast stone in Australia.

“This was done with asbestos and can also be done with silica,” he wrote.

Researchers and unions have also called for a total ban on cast stone, with modeling from Curtin University suggesting that more than half a million Australian workers are exposed to silica dust.

The study, commissioned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions and published in July, predicted that more than 10,000 Australians would develop lung cancer and up to 103,000 silicosis after being exposed at work.

The previous coalition government set up a national dust disease task force to research ways to limit exposure to silica as a growing number of otherwise healthy young people have been diagnosed of silicosis.

One of the seven recommendations made by the task force in its final report released in July 2021 was the establishment of a licensing regime for cast stone.

Image of Parliament with reflection in water
Camera iconMr Scott says he was exposed to silica dust while working on the construction of the Houses of Parliament in Canberra. Credit: istock

The task force also said cast stone products must be banned from 2024 if its recommendations do not result in significant improvements in worker safety.

Health Minister Mark Butler said on Monday that the Commonwealth and the states and territories were working on their response to recommendations from the dust disease task force.

The response includes the implementation of $11 million in federal government funding for health initiatives to address silicosis, including the establishment of a national registry of occupationally acquired respiratory diseases.

Mr Butler said the government would continue to work with unions to address health issues resulting from exposure to silica dust.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said he would discuss silicosis and calls to ban high-silica cast stone with his state and territory counterparts at a meeting at the beginning of next year.

A spokesperson for the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations said Safe Work Australia was developing a regulatory impact statement on the management of silica dust, including reviewing the possibility of a licensing regime for cast stone.

“The results of this analysis will be provided to Ministers of Occupational Health and Safety (WHS) for decision in early 2023,” he said.

Due to the way Australian WHS laws operate, any restrictions or licenses of cast stone manufactured under these laws would need to be developed by Safe Work Australia.

The changes would have to be agreed to by two-thirds of the country’s ministers responsible for occupational health and safety, and then legislated separately in each jurisdiction.

Victoria is the only state that does not follow national WHS laws. It passed a licensing scheme to regulate cast stone late last year.

Parliamentary press conferences
Camera iconHealth Minister Mark Butler said governments were working on their response to the task force’s recommendations. NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage Credit: News Corp Australia

Roger Singh of Shine Lawyers, who represented Mr Scott in his civil case against his former employer, said other governments had already been too slow to act and a licensing system was needed immediately.

“For me, the time for ongoing investigation, debate and analysis should be over,” he said.

“We’ve had case after case after case of workers who will now die aged 40 or younger.”

Mr. Scott handled and cut hundreds of cast stone slabs for installing kitchen and bathroom countertops after cast stone first entered the market in the early 2000s.

At the start of his 32-year career, Mr Scott worked dry-milling slabs of granite for the company hired to help build the new House of Parliament in Canberra in the 1980s.

He sued his employer in 2020 and claims the civil case achieved a ‘positive outcome’ before going to trial.

Mr Scott now faces an agonizing and indefinite wait for new lungs after clearing the final hurdle to approval of the transplant list in Queensland.

He can’t carry his groceries home and he gets out of breath putting gas in his car at the gas station.

“All those little things that you take for granted really bring down someone with shitty lungs,” he said.

“After my transplant, I’m really looking forward to playing football with my grandchildren.”

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