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Gail Marshall has vivid memories of her husband Jeff coming home from his work as a bricklayer covered in dust from head to toe.
“His face would be stark white,” Mrs Marshall said.
“It would be all in his hair.
“I used to be absolutely horrified, I would say, ‘Don’t you come inside 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 laundry trough because it would have ruined the machine.”
Mrs Marshall, now 70, worked as a bricklayer for more than 40 years, starting from the age of 16.
From his first job building a home in Coldstream, north-east of Melbourne, he went on to become a foreman and work on many of Melbourne’s major infrastructure projects over the decades – including the CityLink tunnel, the redevelopment of the MCG and Melbourne Park’s tennis centre.
For the better part of his career, there was no mask-wearing, no wet cutting and no awareness about the dangers of breathing in construction dust.
“There was no protection, none at all,” he said.
“It wasn’t thought of, it was just ‘get the job done’.”
Often the bricks – which typically contain 5 per cent to 15 per cent crystalline silica – needed to be cut with an angle grinder, rather than a saw, creating more dust, he said.
About a decade ago, Mr Marshall began to have trouble breathing.
He hung on and kept working as a bricklayer for a few more years, before trying out a career change as a courier.
But he was forced to stop working entirely when the diesel fumes proved too much for his ailing lungs.
Mr Marshall has since been diagnosed with lung cancer and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), an incurable condition which narrows the airways and causes difficulty breathing.
Doctors have told Mr Marshall the 3cm tumour on his right lung is inoperable.
He is matter-of-fact 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 get outside and go for a walk, I have enough trouble walking to the front gate,” he said.
“It’s hard especially when I see my grandkids, I can talk to them a bit but I can’t run around with them.
“I’ve got a beautiful set of false teeth that cost me an arm and a leg, and I can’t wear them because they close my mouth up too much.”
Mrs Marshall said it had been incredibly difficult to see her husband struggle with his illness.
“To watch him and see how he has changed in personality is heartbreaking, that is the hardest part,” she said.
“He was a happy-go-lucky fellow but now you never see him smile.”
Mr Marshall said it was with his family in mind that he contacted law firm Maurice Blackburn.
His lawyer recently lodged a statutory claim through WorkCover on his behalf, which resulted in a payout of $640,000 – the maximum amount the compensation scheme can award for pain and suffering damages.
“My whole thing was to make sure that Gail was looked after, the money to me is nothing,” Mr Marshall said.
He said he kept the whole process a secret from his wife, right up to the moment when the money arrived in their bank account.
“I didn’t tell Gail and when she (logged in) to the bank account she said, ‘Oh, we have got to ring the bank, they have made a big mistake.'”
“When he told me I was quite gobsmacked,” Mrs Marshall said.
She said no amount of money would give her husband a new set of lungs, and she hoped that by sharing their story they could raise more awareness about dangers of construction workers breathing in dust.
Emily Ormerod, a dust disease lawyer at Maurice Blackburn, said bricklayers and other construction workers were increasingly seeking out her firm’s services as awareness grew about the health impacts of dust exposure.
“Some of these people are finding that they are having to stop work early because of a lung condition,” she said.
“They’re often left with an uncertain future, thinking about how they’re going to provide for their family,
“They are also starting to wonder, ‘How did I end up here?’ and question what they did day-in day-out for all of their working life.”
Mr Marshall’s case was notable in that the former bricklayer had also been a smoker in the past, but this didn’t mean he did not have a legitimate claim for compensation, Ormerod said.
“When Jeff came to us, we did some investigations and what we found was that there is a link between the nature of Jeff’s work and what he was exposed to and the development of lung cancer and COPD.
“There have been studies done that show that bricklayers, in particular, are at an increased risk of developing those conditions, even adjusting for smoking.”
CFMEU Heath and Safety manager Dr Gerry Ayers said although WorkCover was a “no-fault” scheme, which meant there was no requirement to prove fault on the employer’s behalf, many people were forced to seek legal representation to get the outcome they deserved.
“There’s a lot of insurance agents working for WorkCover schemes that will knock back the claims in the first case until a lawyer becomes involved, and that’s always disappointing,” he said.
“It can be quite traumatic on a person that is already feeling the ill effects of some chronic disease. The last thing they need is to go through a legal battle with an insurance firm, to try to get compensation to try and at least have some sort of financial security for the family.”
While workplace safety for bricklayers and other construction workers had improved vastly over the years, Ayers said the health effects of decades past were still being keenly felt.
“They talk about the third and fourth wave of asbestos exposure, we will probably feel the effect of crystalline silica dust, and products which contain crystalline silica, for quite a number of years yet,” he said.
Contact reporter Emily McPherson at [email protected]