Engineered stone ban needed to protect workers from silicosis, Safe Work Australia report says

A new report has called for a ban on all engineered stone in Australia, but governments will not make any changes until they decide on a “national response”.

Engineered stone, a popular material often used for kitchen benches, has been linked to a surge in incurable lung disease among stonemasons due to its high silica content.

The most common is silicosis, an irreversible lung condition that at its worst can cause premature death.

Safe Work Australia was asked to look at possible solutions to the crisis, but concluded a complete ban was the only option, saying regulators had failed to protect workers from the deadly disease.

“Continued work with engineered stone poses an unacceptable risk to workers,” the report said.

“The use of all engineered stone should be prohibited.”

A man in a safety mask and goggles works on a countertop with a circular saw, surrounded by dust.

Unions and health experts have called for a total ban on engineered stone.(Supplied: iStock/Bill Oxford)

The report found engineered stone workers not only faced a greater risk of developing silicosis, but also saw a faster disease progression and higher chance of death when they did get it.

National Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said state and federal governments would meet later this year to decide on the next steps.

“The final report is powerful and compelling. It shows very clearly why we need further action to protect workers from this deadly disease,” Mr Burke said.

Popular in kitchens, dangerous for workers

Engineered stone exploded in popularity throughout the 2000s because it is cheaper and more affordable than other building materials, like granite and marble.

However, when cut it releases a fine silica dust, which can harm the lungs when inhaled.

Safe Work’s report said the first Australian case of silicosis linked to engineered stone was diagnosed in 2015, and that cases had “risen substantially” since then.

“While silicosis cases have been found in workers across a range of industries and silica-containing materials, a disproportionate number of silicosis diagnoses are in engineered stone workers,” the report said.

Tristan Wilson smiling in a portrait with his wife and two young children, standing on the street outside their home.

Tristan Wilson now struggles to keep up with his kids and do basic tasks like mowing the lawn.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

Father of two Tristan Wilson only worked as a stonemason for five years before being diagnosed with silicosis, and will eventually need a lung transplant.

He wants to see a ban on engineered stone implemented as soon as possible.

“Are they waiting for more people to get sick? Are they waiting for death to start happening … for the bodies to start coming in?” he said.

“Because it’s going to happen.”

The ‘greatest tragedy since asbestos’

In the lead-up to the report’s release, engineered stone manufacturers called for more regulation over a total ban, saying outlawing the material would cause chaos in the construction industry.

In a media campaign, manufacturers said transitioning to engineered stone containing low silica levels and more education on safety measures would help keep workers safe.

However, Safe Work’s report concluded that even engineered stone with a lower silica content would pose a risk to workers.

“There is no scientific evidence for a ‘safe’ threshold of crystalline silica content in engineered stone,” the report said.

About a dozen small tiles made of different types of stone are arranged on a table.

Engineered stone has become a popular and more affordable alternative to materials like marble or granite.(Supplied: iStock/MultimediaDean)

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) vowed to stop engineered stone entering worksites by July 2024, if governments did not outlaw it by then.

Assistant Secretary Liam O’Brien said it was important for governments to create a national response and transition the industry and the community to “safer benchtop products”.

“This has possibly been one of the greatest tragedies since asbestos,” he said.

“What we are seeing is workers in their twenties and thirties being struck down with a disease that has no cure, is debilitating, and in some cases will be fatal.”

He said there also needed to be a conversation about ways to support workers who had already been diagnosed with silicosis.

“Workers compensation is inadequate when it comes to supporting workers with diseases like this,” he said.

“We need to ensure that workers with silicosis are getting the best possible treatment for their disease.”

‘Industrial manslaughter’: Doctors want urgent action

Doctors started publicly sounding the alarm about the silicosis “epidemic” back in 2018, telling the ABC it could become the biggest lung disease crisis since asbestos.

Graeme Edwards, an occupational physician and member of the former National Dust Disease Taskforce, believes the government should have announced a national ban on Friday, given the dangers of engineered stone have been known for years.

“Abdicating their responsibility to make that judgement call is tantamount to industrial manslaughter,” he said.

“Every day that these workers continue to do the job that they’re employed to do, it’s going to expose them to all of this harm and they will die. They will die a painful, distressing, premature death.”

 woman with dark hair wearing a black dress and thin rimmed glasses speaks at a press conference.

Queensland Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said action was needed.(ABC News: Lucas Hill)

Queensland Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said a final decision on whether to implement a ban could be made later this year.

“We agreed that we will get together before the end of the year, hopefully in December, and that at that meeting we will make a final decision for a consistent approach,” she said.

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