Cheryl Millership was devastated to discover that her four decades as an art teacher and ceramicist had left her with chronic lung disease.
Her diagnosis of silicosis in 2018 forced her to give up the career she loved, most of which she had spent on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
“Making something with your hands is a beautiful thing to do,” said Mrs. Millership.
“My favorite part of the job is definitely the look on the kids’ faces when I take something out of the oven.”
Four years ago, she had to quit teaching and making ceramics after being diagnosed with silicosis, a condition she developed after teaching for decades in what she described as small, poorly ventilated rooms that worked with clay and cleaned up after her students.
“I’ve done a lot of cleaning up on them and trying to keep the area clean is a big part of a ceramics teacher’s job,” she said.
“I was aware that I couldn’t have too much dust in the room, so you’re constantly cleaning.
“Virtually any surface, including the floor throughout, will have clay in it.”
She suspects that her cleaning regimen prolonged her exposure to silica dust and left her vulnerable to developing silicosis.
After she changed schools, she was assigned to a particularly dirty classroom, where she developed her career-ending cough.
“I developed a really severe one, like coughing fits, almost asthmatic where you can’t quite catch your breath,” she said.
Finally, in 2018, she was diagnosed with what is known as a ‘simple’ silicosis from prolonged exposure to crystalline silica dust.
“At first I was devastated and scared because the only form of silicosis I’d heard of was the very aggressive kind,” Ms Millership said.
Although her variant of silicosis is not as aggressive as others, the symptoms still affect her on a daily basis.
“It means I’m out of breath doing certain exercises. It means there are some restrictions on me,” she said.
Increased regulation for risky workplaces
WorkSafe recently changed existing silicon regulations to give employers the responsibility to warn their employees about the dangers of working with crystalline silica products and to conduct risk assessments to better protect personnel.
Regulations say that any workplace where a “crystalline silica process” is performed — including anything that exposes a person to crystalline silica dust — is necessary to implement the new regulations
Despite Ms Millership’s claim being accepted by WorkCover, the Victorian Department of Education indicated that the new regulations would not apply to activities that normally take place in school art classrooms.
Occupational accident attorney Catherine Sim said the department should make the WorkSafe changes.
“Cheryl’s case shows that there is a risk to a person’s health in the workplace from exposure to crystalline silica,” she said.
“We’d say they’re under regulation because there’s a process going on and a workplace is the school that exposes a worker to crystalline silica dust.”
Ms. Sim said it was not always clear in which industries workers could be exposed to crystalline silica.
“It’s about whether the department itself is aware and is taking those precautions to minimize the risk to their employees.”
WorkSafe data shows that the number of silicosis claims has steadily declined since 2019 and most claims are still from the manufacturing and construction industries.
A handful are emerging in less obvious sectors, including education, electricity, gas, water and waste services, transportation, mail and storage.
Further regulatory changes will come into effect on July 1, making it easier for silicosis patients to access benefits.
Calls to make ceramics education safer
Ms Millership said she was more likely to develop silicosis because none of the rooms she worked in over the years had been built for a ceramics course.
“After my diagnosis, I saw no action from the department,” she said.
“I think they need to make people aware that there is a risk and I think when they ask people to learn ceramics, it should be in a purpose-built space with a good exhaust and a better cleaning regime.”
In a statement, the Ministry of Education said it had policies for dealing with dry clay.
“The health and safety of all staff and students is our top priority and the department has clear safety requirements for staff and students, including requirements to take safety measures related to dry clay management,” said a department spokesperson.
Ms Millership said the policies weren’t doing enough to protect her and not enough ceramics teachers were aware of the dangers of crystalline silica.
“I don’t think anything has been done to address that risk to ceramics teachers in our schools,” she said.
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