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Emerging workplace disease exposes hole in health system, specialists say

There are concerns that not enough is being done to properly track down and test Kiwi workers who could have a life-threatening lung disease.

It’s been more than a year since alarming rates of accelerated silicosis were found among Australian workers in the artificial stone benchtop industry.

This is the second story in a two-part 1 NEWS feature on the emerging issue of accelerated silicosis in New Zealand.

Worker testing

This month, an in-depth assessment of all workers at a New Zealand company was carried out for the first time. 

Trethewey Artisan Stone Managing Director Steve Kirk says for him, “it was just a decision for my team. I just wasn't prepared to wait”.

The Christchurch business chose to pay for check-ups after a spate of cases in Australia. 

But currently, there's no system in place here, to find and test workers.

"Trying to find out fully what we need to do and accurately assess our team has been quite hard going," Mr Kirk says.

Dr Alexandra Muthu, a specialist occupational physician and The Royal Australasian College Of Physicians spokesperson on silicosis, says it has "become really clear from what's been happening in Australia, that if a coordinated screening programme is not done, cases are missed".

I just wasn't prepared to wait - Trethewey Artisan Stone Managing Director Steve Kirk

Looking for the signs

There've been no confirmed cases of accelerated silicosis so far in New Zealand.

But Australian radiologist Dr Catherine Jones says it’s easy to miss the subtle signs of occupational lung disease in any worker.

"Particularly in the aggressive form of the disease, where the worker hasn't had time to develop the classic scarring in the lungs," she explains.

She's in New Zealand, speaking at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists' Annual Scientific Meeting, to help shed light on what she calls a "diagnostic dilemma".

"Not every GP is equipped with the knowledge and information to appropriately screen their patients".

She says one of the key lessons out of the Australian silicosis experience is "definitely a need for greater educational resourcing across all of the industry and medical fraternity".

System shakeup

Dr David McLean is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Health Research Source: 1 NEWS

In New Zealand, occupational health specialists want a better system for assessing all workplace diseases.

"If I parallel it to the public health response to the measles outbreak, immediately when someone gets diagnosed, there are people who are trained and there's resourcing available for people to assess the index case, find contacts, and work out what needs to be done," says Dr Muthu.

The Ministry of Health, ACC and Worksafe say they're working together to respond to the issue, which could include a screening programme as well as setting up a self-referral process for workers.

Environmental monitoring

Meanwhile, Massey University is carrying out a large study, where researchers are monitoring dust exposure levels in different industries.

"We've done some studies so far where we've found elevated levels of silica in the construction industry and then the engineered benchtop industry sort of took over and became even more critical," explains Dr Dave McLean.

While the study has only just gotten underway, Dr McLean says they’ve seen “high levels” at some workplaces, “sometimes three times the current exposure standard”.

He would like to see a group established within Worksafe that carries out national exposure assessments which look at the environment that people are working in.

Worksafe says it intends to undertake exposure surveying as part of its plan for managing airborne contaminants.

“This work will also include targeted guidance, tools and education to support business and workers to improve risk assessment and controls”.

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Alarming rates of accelerated silicosis were found among Australian workers making artificial benchtops. Source: 1 NEWS