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Silica exposure fears ease

FEARS THAT inhalation of silica dust could lead to the kind of asbestos-related losses haunting the insurance industry have been eased by the publication of a study into potential litigation.…

FEARS THAT inhalation of silica dust could lead to the kind of asbestos-related losses haunting the insurance industry have been eased by the publication of a study into potential litigation.

Inhalation of silica dust, a certainty for those in the mining industry, and likely for those working in the areas of masonry, concreting, roofing and sheet metal, has been associated with silicosis, bronchitis, TB and in some cases lung cancer.

However, a review of recent litigation regarding silica has indicated the problem may not be as serious as was first thought. While the total liability to the insurance industry is unclear due to a lack of comprehensive research on the issue, analysis of health data has suggested silica will not affect the industry in the same way as asbestos.

Reinsurance and risk advisor Guy Carpenter said two recent cases in the US give rise to cautious optimism that silica will not follow the litigious path that asbestos has. The Texas Supreme Court ruled recently that the duty to warn [on the risks of an unreasonably dangerous product] on the part of a silica supplier was dependent on whether that supplier could effectively reach its customers’ employees.

Meanwhile, the Texas Supreme Court’s Multidistrict Litigation panel consolidated 71 cases filed in 55 district courts. Consolidation of cases can been seen as advantageous to defendants, Carpenter said, as it allows for more informed decisions on the part of an experienced jurist.

Moreover, Carpenter said, an analysis of available health data indicated that the mortality rate for mesothelioma, an asbestos-related disease, was 20 times the silica rate in 1999.

Even better news for Australian insurers fearing spiraling silica liabilities is that these developments have been noted in the highly litigious US environment. Carpenter noted that outside that environment, liability costs are expected to be lower.

In Europe, for example, more sophisticated safety risk management has been in place. In the UK, sand blasting with silica was outlawed in 1949, and consolidation in Europe of the ceramics and glass industries has led to better OHS measures.

But concerns remain over future exposures. Andrew Webb of Zurich’s risk engineering group pointed out last year that there is scope for future claims given the latency of the more serious silicosis illnesses, up to 40 years.

Stuart Fagg is the Editor of Risk Management magazine, Lawyers Weeklys sister publication.

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