Deadly reason tradie nearly lost $1.5m pay
Steve Terpstra knew the dangers of fine concrete particles two decades before the silent killing disease, silicosis, wreaked havoc on tradespeople across Australia.
While rates of the disease have fallen globally, there's been an alarming spike among Australian tradesman culminating in at least one death and a class action led by stone masons.
Mr Terpstra, from West Australia,was running a concrete cutting business employing 10 staff members in the late 1990s when he first became concerned of the risks of exposing workers to crystalline silica and carbon dioxide fumes.
He was willing to forego his income of about $1.5 million a year if the dangers weren't mitigated but his gripes fell on deaf ears.
Mr Terpstra followed the requirements of the health and safety act to complete an assessment and analysis of any hazards employees were exposed to.
But what he discovered terrified him.
"Even though it was industry practice I knew we were non-compliant and that scared me," he told news.com.au.
"We couldn't just go and do something else (to make it safe) because there was nothing else out there that was compliant so we had to come up with a solution."
Before he shut up shop, he retreated to his garage to try his arm at inventing a device to safeguard tradies who work with concrete and stone from slowly contracting silicosis, an irreversible lung disease caused by long-term exposure to silica dust.
Mr Terpstra plunged $1 million into the creation of his contraption, Guarda Edge Power Cutter, which relies on a complicated combination of water and a vacuum to remove the fine particles from the air during cutting.
The water acts to control the dust being spewed into the air while the vacuum mechanism collects the remaining particles.
WHAT IS SILICOSIS?
The progressive and irreversible lung disease is caused by long-term exposure to silica dust, which is created when artificial or engineered stone is cut.
Symptoms can include shortness of breath, cough, fever, cyanosis (bluish skin) and frequent chest infections, which can eventually lead to lung transplants and death.
Those who have been affected by the diseases can need a lung transplant or may need to rely on an oxygen tank to breathe.
According to the Cancer Council, 587,000 Australian workers were exposed to silica dust in 2011, and about 5758 of these are estimated to develop lung cancer in the future as a result of that exposure.
The disease was thrust into the spotlight last year when Anthony White died from the condition at the age of 36.
The Gold Coast tradesman had become the face of silicosis, publicly sharing confronting images of his emaciated frame and generously revealing his struggles to help raise awareness of the disease.
Since then, a number of other sufferers have come forward and a class action for stonemasons was launched in May.
When the harrowing reports began to surface, the fears of the unsafe workplaces were realised for Mr Terpstra.
"That brought home to roost that what I had done was the right thing," he told news.com.au.
"The disappointing thing was industry and government knew these things were going on because I made them aware of it in the early years.
"But everybody turned a blind eye to it, in my opinion.
"People (in the industry) knew about it but they just didn't enforce the regulations. No one was taking notice."
Mr Terpstra is relieved the dangers are finally being taken seriously, but the frustrations at the lack of action persist.
"People are dying," he said.
"If there had have been policing and maintaining of the standard, then it wouldn't be the issue it is today."
The former concrete cutter said it's vital industry standards support the implementation of safety protocols such as this design to help bring down the cost and make the workplace safer.
"There's people out there doing the wrong thing and cutting corners and that's where I think it comes back to the government," Mr Terpstra said.
"They have to create an equal playing field because people want to do the right thing but if that cost is prohibitive, they'll quickly go off and do the wrong thing."
Managing director Craig Penty said it had been a long and arduous journey to get the industry to adopt the potentially lifesaving invention.
"Steve has had big challenges over the years firstly to get people to take silica dust seriously," he told news.com.au.
"It's really been the spike in cases over the last 12 months that has finally got everyone jumping into action.
"What Steve is frustrated with is he knew about this 20 years ago and knew the technology wasn't enough to keep people safe."