Gail Marshall has vivid memories of her husband Jeff coming home from his work as a bricklayer who is covered in dust from head to toe.
“His face would be stark white,” said Mrs. Marshall.
“It would all be in his hair.
“I used to be absolutely shocked. I’d say, ‘Don’t come in with those boots on.'”
Washing his stiff and cakey clothes was always a challenge, Mrs. Marshall said.
“I had to run them under the tap and soak them in the sink or the machine would break.”
Mr Marshall, now 70, worked as a bricklayer for over 40 years, starting at 16.
From his first job building a house in Coldstream, northeast of Melbourne, he became a foreman and over the decades worked on many of Melbourne’s major infrastructure projects – including the CityLink tunnel, the redevelopment of the MCG and the tennis center from Melbourne Park. †
For most of his career he did not wear a mask, did not wet saw and was unaware of the dangers of inhaling building dust.
“There was no protection, none at all,” he said.
“It wasn’t thought of, it was just ‘getting the job done.'”
Often, the rocks — which usually contain 5 to 15 percent crystalline silica — had to be cut with an angle grinder rather than a saw, creating more dust, he said.
About ten years ago, Mr. Marshall started having trouble breathing. He persevered and continued to work as a mason for a few more years before attempting a career switch as a courier. But he had to stop working altogether when the diesel fumes became too much for his ailing lungs.
Mr Marshall has since been diagnosed with lung cancer and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), an incurable condition that narrows the airways and causes breathing difficulties.
Doctors have told Mr Marshall that the 3cm tumor on his right lung is inoperable.
He is sober about his diagnosis.
“It is what it is, a lot of people are worse off than me,” he said.
But his deteriorating health has taken a heavy toll.
“I can’t go out for a walk, I have enough trouble walking to the front door already,” he said.
“It’s hard, especially when I see my grandchildren, I can talk to them a little bit, but I can’t run around with them.
“I have beautiful dentures that cost me an arm and a leg, and I can’t wear them because they close my mouth too much.”
Ms Marshall said it was incredibly difficult to watch her husband struggle with his illness.
“To see him and see how he’s changed in personality is heartbreaking, that’s the hardest part,” she said.
“He used to be a happy guy, but now you’ll never see him smile again.”
Marshall said he contacted law firm Maurice Blackburn with his family in mind.
His attorney recently filed a legal claim on his behalf through WorkCover, resulting in a $640,000 payout — the maximum amount the compensation plan can award for pain and suffering damages.
“My whole thing was to make sure Gail was taken care of, the money for me is nothing,” said Mr Marshall.
He said he kept the entire process a secret from his wife until the money arrived in their bank account.
“I didn’t tell Gail and when she (login) into the bank account she said, ‘Oh, we need to call the bank, they made a big mistake.'”
“When he told me I was stunned,” Mrs. Marshall said.
She said no money would give her husband a new set of lungs, and she hoped sharing their story would raise awareness about the dangers of construction workers who breathe dust.
Emily Ormerod, a dust disease attorney at Maurice Blackburn, said masons and other construction workers increasingly called on her firm’s services as awareness grew about the health effects of dust exposure.
“Some of these people find that they have to retire early because of lung disease,” she said.
“They are often left with an uncertain future, thinking about how they will take care of their families,
“They’re also starting to wonder, ‘How did I get here?’ and wonder what they’ve been doing day in and day out all their working lives.”
Mr Marshall’s case was notable in that the former bricklayer was also a smoker in the past, but this didn’t mean he didn’t have a legitimate claim for damages, Ormerod said.
“When Jeff came to us, we did some research and what we found was that there is a connection between the nature of Jeff’s work and what he was exposed to and the development of lung cancer and COPD.
“Studies have been done showing that masons in particular are at an increased risk of developing those conditions, even if they adapt to smoking.”
CFMEU Heath and Safety Manager Dr. Gerry Ayers said that while WorkCover was a “no-fault” arrangement, meaning there was no need to prove guilt on behalf of the employer, many people were forced to seek legal counsel to get the outcome they deserved.
“There are a lot of insurance agents working for WorkCover plans that will roll back the claims in the first case until an attorney comes along, and that’s always disappointing,” he said.
“It can be quite traumatic for a person who is already feeling the ill effects of a chronic illness. The last thing they need is a legal battle with an insurance company, trying to get compensation to try and at least some sort of financial security for the family.”
While workplace safety for masons and other construction workers had improved dramatically over the years, Ayers said the health effects of decades past were still clearly felt.
“They’re talking about the third and fourth wave of asbestos exposure. We’re probably going to feel the effect of crystalline silica dust and products containing crystalline silica for quite a few more years,” he said.
Contact reporter Emily McPherson at [email protected]