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Silicosis is a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling unsafe levels of silica dust, usually over a period of many years.

About silicosis

You are at risk of silicosis if you work with quartz, sand, stone, soil, granite, brick, cement, grout, mortar, bitumen or engineered stone products.

These materials contain the mineral silica and working with them can create a very fine dust that's easily inhaled. Once inside your lungs, the dust particles can scar the lungs. This scarring is known as silicosis.

You are at risk of developing silicosis if your work involves:

  • stone masonry and stone cutting, especially with artificial stone such as engineered, reconstituted or manufactured stone and quartz conglomerate
  • construction and demolition
  • pottery, ceramics and glass manufacturing
  • mining and quarrying
  • sand blasting

Not everyone who works with silica dust develops silicosis. The chances of getting silicosis will depend on many factors, including how much silica dust you come into contact with, and for how long you were exposed to it.

Types of silicosis

The 3 common types of silicosis are:

  • chronic silicosis — exposure to silica dust for more than 10 years
  • accelerated silicosis — exposure to silica dust for 3-10 years
  • acute silicosis — develops within weeks or months of exposure to silica dust

All 3 types affect you in the same way. The difference is how long it takes for problems to develop.

Symptoms of silicosis

The main symptoms of silicosis are shortness of breath, chest pain, cough and tiredness. But in the early stages of silicosis, there may be no symptoms.

The symptoms become severe as the condition gets worse. Eventually, you might find simple activities such as walking or climbing stairs difficult. You might also have trouble sleeping and eating properly.

Silicosis can also increase your risk of getting other serious conditions such as tuberculosis (TB), chest infections, emphysema, kidney damage and lung cancer.

If you develop the symptoms of silicosis, make an urgent appointment with your doctor if you work, or have worked, with products that create silica dust.

Silicosis diagnosis

At the appointment, your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and work history. The doctor will examine you and listen to your lungs with a stethoscope.

Tell the doctor about your exposure to silica dust and whether you were issued with any safety equipment, such as a face mask, when you were working.

The doctor may send you for tests such as:

  • a chest x-ray to look for abnormalities in your lungs
  • a computerised tomography (CT) scan of your chest to produce more detailed images of your lungs
  • lung function testing (spirometry) to see how well your lungs are working

Silicosis treatment

Unfortunately, the damage to your lungs can't be reversed. But your doctor can offer treatments such as inhalers and oxygen therapy to improve your breathing and your quality of life.

Your doctor might also suggest that stop smoking (if you smoke), have regular tests to check for tuberculosis (TB), and have the annual flu jab.

Prevention of silicosis

Silicosis can be prevented if you:

  • avoid prolonged exposure to silica dust
  • wear protective masks (but not disposable paper ones)
  • wet down tools and materials to suppress dust
  • use tools that have dust-collecting attachments

All workplaces, employers and employees in Australia must comply with their workplace health and safety procedures.

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Last reviewed: July 2019

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