Safe Work Australia is currently considering a ban on engineered stone following a meeting with Australia’s Work Health and Safety (WHS) ministers in late February as well as a public consultation on the proposed ban, which concluded in May. The report, which will be released in August this year, is expected to set silica content levels for engineered stone as well as introduce a licensing scheme.

Cosentino, a global company specialising in sustainable surfaces, says it is driving a critical change in the engineered stone industry by innovating new low silica products and creating a healthier environment for workers during fabrication.

Quartz and the engineered stone industry

For a long time, Australia’s engineered stone industry has used quartz as the basic raw material to manufacture engineered stone products. “It's one of the best raw materials that you can find today in order to create new stone-like products because it can be mined quite easily,” explains Shimony.

A very easy mineral to work with, with high strength properties, quartz is the most common form of crystalline silica, exposure to which can be quite dangerous when health and safety guidelines are ignored during grinding or fabrication. Inhaling crystalline silica particles increases the risk of workers developing the deadly silicosis disease.

While quartz, which goes into the production of engineered stone, is never dangerous to the end user, there is a risk during the fabrication process from slab to countertop, for instance, if you don’t have the right health and safety measures in place, says Itay Shimony, Vice President Oceania, Cosentino.

The need for products with less crystalline silica

For many years, the focus of the industry was on educating and training stonemasons to work properly with the products. This meant that even with products that contain 90% crystalline silica or more, if you work with them according to the guidelines, the MSDS, and all the health and safety directions, the risk is very low. But how does one ensure these guidelines are followed?

Shimony likes to cite the example of the car industry, which provided seatbelts to keep people safe in cars but still continued to invest in system development to build safer cars with more safety measures such as airbags and anti-collision systems. Cosentino follows the same approach. For many years it was about educating; however, while education was important, and working correctly did mitigate risk, it was just not enough.

So, 15 years ago, along with education, Cosentino decided to put their efforts into developing products that contained lesser amounts of crystalline silica but offered the same properties of engineered stone.

A proposed ban and the transition to low silica

Two years ago, Cosentino was able to replace their entire product stock in Australia to low silica, without disrupting the market with a shortage of raw materials, and without changing the look, pattern or quality. “We are leading the way as a global leader for the rest of the manufacturers to come and say it's possible,” says Shimony.  

Cosentino says it has invested about $18 million and 1,200 hours of research and development, says Shimony, but it's nothing that any of the suppliers, manufacturers or local importers cannot also achieve.

Cosentino’s ‘recipe’ for their products involved replacing most of the quartz with feldspar, which contains less crystalline silica than quartz.

“Reducing the amount of crystalline silica, I think, is a great direction that everyone is taking because the technology is there. It won't change the fact that we need also to make sure WorkSafe, Safe Work and all the governmental bodies ensure that those working with the products are following even stricter health and safety measures. We want people to feel safe to work in this industry.”

According to Shimony, big developers such as Lendlease, Mirvac, Meriton and Sentinel have already taken a decision – without waiting for any legislation – to start working with low silica products.

This is a transcript of our recent Talking Architecture & Design podcast: Episode 163: The Silicosis crisis, the need to update workplace laws and the changing direction of benchtop makers