Dust Diseases Board research informs practical ways to protect workers

Understanding the nature of silicosis is vital to protect those working with hazardous dust such as the silica found in natural and artificial stone.

Dr Sharyn Gaskin

The Dust Diseases Board provides funding for research into causes and prevention of silicosis and other dust diseases. Across workplaces, we are seeing the rise of silicosis.

Thanks to a research grant from the Dust Diseases Board, Dr Sharyn Gaskin is looking at practical ways to protect workers.

Dr Sharyn Gaskin is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Unit at The University of Adelaide. She is also the Director of Adelaide Exposure Science and Health laboratory.

In 2019, Dr Gaskin was awarded a grant from the Dust Diseases Board, administered via icare, for research into 'Improving exposure science and dust control for engineered stone workers'. The research compared engineered stone with natural stone.

From this, it identified dust control measures best able to minimise the risk of silicosis.

Using science to find practical ways to protect workers

Dr Gaskin's research interest is in exposure science and disease prevention, which involves anything in our work environment or living home environment that can affect human health. She looks for practical ways to prevent illness and disease.

With a general interest in respiratory health, her team at The University of Adelaide started looking into the risks associated with silica dust exposure in 2018.

"My personal ethos is to get out of bed every day and make sure workers get home healthy."
Dr Sharyn Gaskin

Understanding Silicosis

With the increase in the incidence of identified silicosis among people working with artificial (engineered) stone products, the unique hazards of this material are not well known.

Dr Gaskin was curious to understand the rapid increases in this disease. Her research sought to understand why it's happening and what can be done about it.

Her research explored the issue from a public health perspective to understand the hazard better, control exposure and prevent disease. Specifically, it explored:

  • the physical nature of the dust, materials and hazards that come from cutting and processing the engineered stone
  • toxicology, how the material affected the lungs
  • the best way to control exposure to this dust and other materials that are released when cutting and grinding this material.
"It's a complex area of science, but it's really applied, and it can make a difference on the ground, which is really the sort of scientist I try to be."


The research was completed in 2021 and findings have been published which discuss how to reduce the workers exposure to the hazardous dust. Some of the key findings are mentioned below:

As expected, the dust is most reactive when it is airborne. However, a secondary exposure pathway occurs when the dust settles on the ground. It is less reactive, but it retains reactivity even up to 20 days later. Given this, the workers cutting the stone and those cleaning the area need to be protected.

Comparing the engineered stone to more traditional materials like natural granites and marbles, her research found the crystalline silica had a more hazardous composition. The crystalline silica had almost 90 per cent mineral in it, compared to 3—30 per cent in natural products.

Overall, the research found that cutting the materials wet is better than dry cutting. It matters where the water connects with the dust at the source and a combination of controls need to be applied to protect the worker.

Full findings of the research can be viewed using the following two links:

Characterisation of dust emissions from machined engineered stones to understand the hazard for accelerated silicosis

Rapid Assessment of Oxidative Damage Potential: A Comparative Study of Engineered Stone Dusts Using a Deoxyguanosine Assay

"The science is interesting, but it's all about how we can protect the worker at the end of the day. That's the whole point of us doing this work."

The importance of lung health screening

"You don't wake up one day with your lungs not working. It's usually a slow progression. We need to keep an eye on worker's lung health and lung function in order to map that so that we can intervene earlier and not wait until it's essentially too late."

Critical funding

"The Dust Disease Board grant funding was critical to do this research. My team are one of only a few looking at prevention in Australia and if we hadn't received the grant, we would not have been able to fund this work.

There really is no comparable scheme to allow for this sort of research. To have a dedicated lung health organisation that funds specifically tailored research, it's really critical to get those practical outcomes for the workers."

Learn more about the Dust Disease Board grant

Looking for an alternative…. Next steps

The next step for Dr Gaskin and her team is to explore the next generation of materials and to look for new solutions to control the silica dust hazard.

The manufacturing industry have started to explore alternative materials with lower crystalline silica content in the bulk material. Research in this area could help inform the industry of ongoing prevention needs.

"There is dust disease in lots of areas of work, not just engineered stone manufacturing. So we're looking at exploring how we can take these learnings and apply them to other industries like construction and quarrying to get benefit to other workforces as well."