The use of engineered stone products must be banned immediately, according to a new report by Safe Work Australia.
Released by the Commonwealth and State Workplace Health and Safety Ministers last Friday, the report recommended a complete overhaul of engineered stone products across Australia.
It comes as Australia’s largest building and construction union announced that it will block engineered stone benchtops from being used on sites from mid-2024.
The report recommended “a complete prohibition on the use of engineered stone.”
It states that “the risks posed by working with engineered stone are serious, and the possible consequences of exposure to RCS (respirable crystalline silica, otherwise known as silica dust) generated by engineered stone are severe and are sometimes fatal.”
“At present, an unknown number of Australian workers will go on to develop silicosis because of their prior exposure to RCS from working with engineered stone,” the report said, with “the only way to ensure that another generation of Australian workers does not contract silicosis from such work is to prohibit its use, regardless of its silica content.”
It states that “the cost to industry, while real and relevant, cannot outweigh the significant costs to Australian workers, their families and the broader community that result from exposure to RCS from engineered stone.”
- Download the report here.
As reported last week, engineered stone benchtops are one of the most popular products sold in the Australian marketplace. According to a leading cabinet marker, as much as 60% of benchtops sold through independent hardware are made from the deadly product.
The product is traditionally bought in large slabs from overseas and sent to a fabricator, who cuts it to a template size and sends it to installers.
As reported by Sourceable, it is a composite slab of stone produced from crushed quartz and other materials, which are bound together using a polymer resin.
It has gained popularity in kitchen and bathroom benchtops over the past decade because of its low cost compared with other slab stone products, including marble.
Timber, laminate, bamboo and polisher concrete are understood to be viable alternatives to engineered stone, with Bunnings reporting last weekend that the majority of products sold in stores are “laminate or timber benchtops.”
Thought to be the “new asbestos”, the Royal Australian College of GPs states those diagnosed with silicosis “lose an average of 11.6 years of life”.
The concerns centre around the levels of crushed silica crystals contained within the material – which, when cut, grounded or polished, have been linked to incurable disease.
These concerns coincide with a surge in silicosis cases diagnosed throughout Australia.
Over the three years to 2020/21, the report reports that 218 workers’ compensation claims were accepted for silicosis.
“This compares to only 41 accepted claims over the seven years from 2011/12 to 2017-18,” the report said.
According to Safe Work Australia, most claims over the three years to 2020/21 came from those involved in the benchtop manufacturing industry.
This is despite the industry making up just 2% of the workforce exposed to silica dust.
As reported by Sourceable, a recent Queensland Screening Program found that as many as 11% of stonemasons and engineered stone workers have had either a probable or confirmed case of silicosis.
Whilst silica dust is present in many construction materials that consist of rock, sand, glass, quartz and natural stone, the report says “engineered stone is particularly hazardous because of several factors” because:
- Engineered stone products often have an exceptionally high silica content (up to 90% by weight), resulting in the generation of a high level of dust when compared with other products, such as natural stone.
- Engineered stone can be processed more quickly than natural stone, meaning that a greater volume can be processed in a single shift (thus exposing workers to more significant volumes of dust).
- The dust produced from engineered stone has different physical properties compared with that made from natural stone. These include a more significant proportion of very small (nanoscale) particles which can penetrate deeper into the lungs.
- Other components of engineered stone may potentially contribute to the toxic effects of engineered stone dust – either alone or by exacerbating the effects of silica dust. These include resins, metals, amorphous silica and pigments.
The latest report comes over three years after the final report of the National Dust Disease Taskforce recommended that Commonwealth and State Ministers prepare for a total ban on the use of engineered stone products from 1 July 2024 “if other measures to reduce the number of workers who contract silicosis and other dust diseases failed to deliver sufficient safety improvements.”
As part of the report, Safe Work Australia has considered three options, which include:
- A complete ban on the use of all engineered stone products.
- A ban on the use of engineered stone products which contain 40% or more of silica product
- A ban on using engineered stone products with more than 40% of the silica product, along with a compulsory licensing scheme for businesses who work with the product.
In pushing for the first option, a total ban on the product, Safe Work Australia said, “There was no evidence that lower silica-engineered stone products are safer.”
It also suggests that manufacturers pushing back against the ban have yet to provide independent scientific evidence that products did not pose an unacceptable risk to worker health and safety.
With this in mind, it said the only way to ensure that the next generation of workers is suitably protected is to ban the use of the product.
He said the Government will now meet with the state-based Workplace Health and Safety Ministers to decide on the next steps.
The peak body for Australian Trade Unions has called on governments to implement the recommended ban.
“This recommendation by Safe Work Australia will save lives,” according to Liam O’Brien, the Assistant Secretary for the ACTU.
The union movement has long supported an immediate ban as part of their Stop This Killer Stone campaign – pushing to ban the production, importation and use of the material.
“We urge all governments to introduce it at the earliest opportunity,” Mr O’Brien said.
“Silicosis and silica-related diseases pose an unacceptable health risk to workers,” he said, continuing that “this report shows that no engineered stone is safe for workers.”
“No worker in Australia should have to plan their funeral and farewell their loved ones, all because of a lung disease they got from working with this deadly stone.”
“The report made clear that there is no other option than an outright ban on engineered stone. Keeping this deadly product legal means more workers are getting health problems and more workers dying.”
Joanne Wade, Head of National Asbestos and Dust Disease at legal firm Slater and Gordon, supports this.
Ms Wade says acting quickly on the ban will save Australian workers’ lives.
“There is no cure for silicosis and silica-related diseases, but they can be prevented,” according to Ms Wade.
“It has long been our firm’s position that workers will keep dying unless we ban engineered stone and stop the exposure to this deadly dust.”
“In our legal practice, we have seen increasing cases of silica-related diseases arising, often at the advanced and debilitating stages, due to exposure to silica dust from engineered stone.”
“These cases are workers in the prime of their life, with young families, mortgages and a whole lifetime ahead of them.”
“It’s time to draw a line in the sand and ban using deadly engineered stone products. Workers’ lives are on the line.”