Silicosis

Silicosis is a chronic lung disease caused by breathing in too much crystalline silica dust.

Key points about silicosis

  1. Silicosis is an irreversible chronic lung disease. Symptoms typically develop progressively over 3–10 years. 
  2. Silica is found in some types of stone, rock, sand and clay. If you work with these materials, you can easily breathe the very fine silica dust into your lungs. 
  3. Common symptoms of silicosis include persistent cough, shortness of breath and extreme tiredness. 
  4. See your doctor if you work with silica and are concerned about getting silicosis. 
  5. As there is no cure for silicosis, treatment aims to relieve your symptoms and slow down the rate the condition progresses. 
  6. Getting protection from silica dust is the best way to prevent silicosis.

When to see your doctor about silicosis

If you work in any of the industries listed below and have the following symptoms, see your GP or doctor to get checked for silicosis:
  • persistent cough
  • persistent shortness of breath
  • tiredness, fatigue and reduced exercise tolerance. 

What are the causes of silicosis?

Silica is found in some types of stone, rock, sand and clay. People who work with these materials can inhale easily the very fine silica dust into their lungs. Once the fine silica dust is inhaled, your body's immune system attacks it and causes swelling and inflammation in your lungs.

The swelling and inflammation in your lungs can cause scar tissue (fibrosis) to form over time. This makes your lungs stiff and not work properly. 

Where might I be exposed to silica?

You are at risk of getting silicosis if you work in the following industries:

  • engineered stone benchtops (these benchtops have 90% silica)
  • stone masonry and stone cutting
  • mining and quarrying
  • construction and demolition
  • pottery, ceramics and glass manufacturing
  • sandblasting.

What are the types of silicosis?

There are 3 types of silicosis:

  • Chronic silicosis – this is the most common type of silicosis. The symptoms of silicosis develop slowly and progressively over decades with prolonged silica exposure. 
  • Acute silicosis – the symptoms of silicosis develop quickly from a few weeks to less than 5 years after very high levels of exposure to silica. 
  • Accelerated silicosis – the symptoms of silicosis develop more quickly than chronic silicosis, within 1 year, but less than 10 years after exposure to a large amount of silica in a short period of time. Accelerated silicosis is especially common in people who work with engineered stone benchtops. 

What are the symptoms of silicosis?

The symptoms of silicosis usually develop slowly and progressively over many years. If you are exposed to a large amount of silica dust in a short period of time, eg, in accelerated silicosis or acute silicosis, symptoms can develop more rapidly. 

Common symptoms of silicosis include:

  • persistent cough
  • persistent shortness of breath
  • tiredness, fatigue and reduced exercise tolerance
  • loss of appetite and weight loss (late symptoms). 

As these symptoms develop slowly, you may not notice them until after you have stopped working with silica dust. Symptoms can also get worse even if you are no longer working in the industry and exposed to silica dust. 

In more severe cases, the scarring of your lungs can put pressure on your heart and cause heart failure. 

How is silicosis diagnosed?

Your GP will ask you questions about your symptoms, including your occupation and how long you have been exposed to silica dust. Your GP will also listen to and examine your lungs. Tests that may be done include:

If you have silicosis, you may be referred to a lung specialist doctor for follow-ups. 

How is silicosis treated?

There is no cure for silicosis. Treatment aims to relieve your symptoms and check your progression. If you are still exposed to silica dust, your GP or lung specialist doctor will advise you to stop any further exposure. 

How can I care for myself with silicosis?

If you have silicosis, your lungs are already damaged. There are self-care measures to protect your lungs from further damage, including:

How can I prevent silicosis?

Having enough protection from silica dust is the best way to prevent silicosis. Employers in any industry involved in working with silica need to review their business and complete a risk assessment for silica exposure for their workers. Read more about silica dust in the workplace guide for employers. 

Generally, things that you can do as an employee if you are exposed to silica dust in your workplace include:

  • wearing and using personal protective equipment (PPE) correctly – talk to your employer if you need training on how to use a PPE in a correct way
  • not bringing dust-covered work clothes home – leave them at your workplace to be cleaned
  • washing your hands before eating, drinking, smoking and leaving work at the end of the day. 

Read more about 8 key things for workers to know – controlling silica dust in the workplace.

What support is available with silicosis?

Talk to your GP or Work and Income NZ to find out options and benefits if you have to stop work. In addition, Worksafe NZ is a New Zealand-based organisation that provides general information and resources regarding workplace health and safety. You can also make claims in relation to work-related health problems through ACC NZ, with a range of possible benefits and support. 

If you need to talk to someone, talk to your GP to find out counsellors available in your area. Alternatively, you can call 1737 or Lifeline Aotearoa 0800 543 354 for free counselling. 

Learn more

Silicosis HealthInfo Canterbury, NZ
Silica dust in the workplace WorkSafe, NZ
Accelerated silicosis WorkSafe, NZ 
Accelerated silicosis Ministry of Health, NZ 
What you need to know about accelerated silicosis Ministry of Health, NZ 
Silicosis NHS, UK

References

  1. Silica exposure Auckland Regional HealthPathways, NZ, 2020
  2. Silica exposure Canterbury Regional HealthPathways, NZ, 2020
  3. Accelerated silicosis overview The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, 2020
  4. Accelerated silicosis assessment pathway Ministry of Health, NZ, 202

Reviewed by

Dr Helen Kenealy is a geriatrician and general physician working at Counties Manukau DHB. She has a broad range of interests and has worked in a variety of settings including inpatient rehabilitation, orthogeriatric and community geriatrics.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Helen Kenealy, geriatrician and general physician, Counties Manukau DHB Last reviewed: 22 Mar 2021