Hundreds of protesters across Australia have picketed hardware giant Bunnings amid health concerns over engineered stone benchtops.
Described by health officials as “new asbestos”, engineered stone is a substitute for timber and laminated benchtops.
It contains high levels of crushed silica crystals – which, when cut, grounded or polished, has been linked to incurable disease.
Because it is durable and comes in various colours, it has become a fashionable choice for kitchen and bathroom fittings.
Wood Central understands that Bunnings is the country’s leading supplier of engineered stone benchtops.
According to a 2021 report by the Australian government’s National Dust Disease Taskforce, nearly one in four workers exposed to silica dust from engineered stone before 2018 have been diagnosed with silicosis.
In 2023, modelling from Curtin University predicted that more than 10,000 Australians will develop lung cancer and up to 103,000 workers will be diagnosed with silicosis due to exposure to silica dust during their lifetimes.
Accelerated silicosis is an aggressive and incurable form of lung disease which traditionally affects construction workers, farmers, miners and engineers. It is caused by breathing in unsafe levels of silica dust, which can scar your lungs and cause them to stiffen.
Wood Central understands that Federal and State ministers are now reviewing a Safe Work Australia report around an outright ban on high-concentration crystalline silica slabs.
Yesterday, Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) members across the country targeted stores, urging them to stop selling the product and look to safer alternatives, including low-quartz products, natural stone, stainless steel or wood-based laminate.
The union members stood outside Bunnings stores, waving placards and handing out pamphlets as part of its Stop This Killer Stone campaign – a campaign pushing to ban production, importation and use of the material by July next year.
It will ban its members from handling the material if the demand is unmet.
According to CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith, the severity of the action the union was willing to take reflected the severity of the risk to its members.
“This product is killing workers, and the reality is Australian workers will keep dying unless we ban engineered stone,” according to the union boss.
Speaking about the protects, Mr Smith said, “Bunnings customers deserve to know it is profiting from killer stone bench tops.”
“Our members have today been educating Bunnings customers so as many people as possible have the facts about engineered stone and the alternatives that don’t kill workers.”
“Bunnings will stop selling Killer Stone immediately if it cares about Australian workers’ lives,” he said.
Previously, Bunnings director of merchandise Jen Tucker said the hardware giant was aware of the concern and would continue to “monitor and follow advice from the regulatory authorities.”
It’s understood that after receiving a letter from the union, the store offered to meet with officials.
The engineered stone benchtop products offered in its stores are sold via a supply and install package, with the materials coming pre-cut and any alterations done via a specialist supplier.
“Most in-store benchtops are laminate or timber,” she said.
“However, the engineered stone benchtops we provide are pre-cut to size before they arrive at a customer’s site and are supplied and installed by a specialist provider that holds an engineered stone licence and applies strict safety standards to protect production and installation teams in line with the requirements of their licence.”
Mr Smith said this is not good enough, “as there is no safe exposure to silica dust.”
This is supported by Kate Cole, President of the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists, who said the products should be banned immediately.
“Every day or every year we delay this decision, we just have more workers that are being exposed and unfortunately are likely to contract these debilitating and incurable diseases,” she told the ABC in November last year.
In February, Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said ministers unanimously agreed to begin the steps toward implementing a national ban but admitted the process to change workplace health and safety laws “doesn’t move quickly”.
“We have now tasked Safe Work Australia to do the work to scope out what regulation is required for workplaces that deal with silica dust and to scope out, specifically, concerning engineered stone and engineered stone benchtops to do the work starting now, on what a ban would look like,” he said.
“People would be aware that not all engineered stone is at 97, 98 per cent silica; some forms are at much lower percentages and therefore present a much lower risk; somewhere the risk is no different to natural stone.”
“So we’ve asked Safe Work Australia to scope out if there were to be a prohibition, where that line would be drawn.”
“And then to also scope out how you can have a nationally consistent licensing system for whatever remains considered safe on the market.”