A new report by Safe Work Australia has flagged the serious health implications of silica dust exposure in the engineered stone industry, recommending a complete ban on the use of the material to protect the health and safety of workers.
According to the report, there is no safe level of silica in engineered stone products, which means only a total prohibition on the use of all engineered stone products can mitigate the rising incidence of silicosis among industry workers.
Silicosis is a fatal lung disease caused by the worker’s exposure to silica dust released during the cutting of engineered stone benchtops, which can contain up to 95 percent silica. While the first case of silicosis associated with engineered stone was reported in 2015, the number of engineered stone workers diagnosed with the cancer-causing disease since then has risen significantly.
Earlier this year, Work Health and Safety (WHS) ministers met to consider the recommendations of the Decision Regulation Impact Statement: Managing the risks of respirable crystalline silica (RCS) at work (Silica Decision RIS), following which Safe Work Australia was tasked to undertake further analysis and consultation on the impact of a prohibition on the use of engineered stone.
The WHS ministers, who were provided the report in August, met again in October and agreed Safe Work Australia publish the Decision Regulation Impact Statement: Prohibition on the use of engineered stone. The Decision RIS, which was informed by stakeholder consultation, independent economic analysis, and an expert review of evidence, recommended a prohibition on the use of all engineered stone, irrespective of crystalline silica content, to protect the health and safety of workers.
Safe Work’s investigations revealed that engineered stone workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) were significantly over-represented in silicosis cases, and were also being diagnosed with silicosis at a much younger age than workers from other industries. It was also found that the high levels of RCS generated by working with engineered stone were likely to contribute to more rapid and severe disease.
Importantly, the report reveals that there is no toxicological evidence of a ‘safe’ threshold of crystalline silica content in engineered stone. While silicosis and silica-related diseases are preventable, a persistent lack of compliance with, and enforcement of, the obligations imposed under WHS laws across the engineered stone industry at all levels has further exacerbated the problem.
“Given the increased rates of silicosis diagnosis in engineered stone workers, and a lack of any evidence that a lower silica content engineered stone is safe to work with, it is not possible to support the continued use of any engineered stone products,” the report reads.
Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Tony Burke says the report is both powerful and compelling.
“It shows very clearly why we need further action to protect workers from this deadly disease. No one should ever contract a terminal illness simply because they’ve turned up to work," he says.
"The Government is working with the states and territories on a co-operative national response. We will convene another meeting of Work Health and Safety Ministers this year to decide on next steps.”
The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) has welcomed the recommendation by Safe Work Australia for a total ban on all engineered stone. AWU national secretary Paul Farrow describes the proposed ban on engineered stone as ‘long overdue’.
“Our message has not changed over the past three years. These workers are dying for a fashion product. It is the duty of every Work Health and Safety Minister to do everything they can to prevent this from happening.”
“A ban on engineered stone is the right thing to do and will save the lives of hundreds of stonemasons. We cannot allow another generation of workers to suffer from this terrible illness.”
WHS Ministers are expected to meet again before the end of the year to consider the recommendations in the Decision RIS to prohibit the use of all engineered stone.
Image: Australian Workers’ Union