CFMEU asks Bunnings to ban benchtops linked to silicosis

The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) has called on Bunnings to stop selling products linked to the deadly condition silicosis, as it continues a national campaign to ban engineered stone benchtops in Australia.

CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith wrote to the hardware giant, requesting the benchtops be removed from stores around the country.

“Bunnings has unique market power and a unique place in Australian society,” the letter said.

“If you were to remove this killer product from your shelves, it would send a powerful message. And, more importantly, it would save lives.”

Comparable to asbestos

Federal Workplace Minister Tony Burke has previous compared the silica products to asbestos, which was commonly used as insulation before the deadly effects of its particles were widely recognised.

Burke initiated a review earlier this year.

Jen Tucker, director of merchandise at Bunnings, said most of the benchtops sold in store are laminated or timber; however, the engineered stone benchtops stocked by the company are pre-cut to size.

“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,” she said.

“The safety of our team and customers is something we take really seriously, and we will continue to monitor and follow advice from the regulatory authorities on this matter.”

Bunnings has received and responded to the CFMEU’s letter, and Tucker said the company is supportive of new legislation, and the introduction of consistent standards and licensing across the country.

Silicosis and stone

A study from Monash University, published earlier this year, found 25 per cent of stone benchtop workers were affected by silicosis.

People working with materials containing silica for as little as three years have been diagnosed with silicosis.


Silicosis results in life-threatening illness, and long-term loss of work and income. Photo: Getty

And 40 per cent of the people diagnosed with early-stage silicosis had normal results from chest X-rays, meaning that current screening technique may not result in a diagnosis and treatment until the disease progresses further.

In his letter to Bunnings, Smith said silicosis is a brutal disease; with no safe level of inhalation of silica.

“Our members working in factories that cut engineered stone are at high risk of developing silicosis,” he said.

“It has also been common practice on construction sites when the delivered engineered stone benchtops [are] often needed to be trimmed to fit.”

Silicosis causes irreversible damage and occurs when fine particles of crystalline silica find their way into a person’s lungs, causing shortness of breath, coughing, fevers and, if untreated, potentially death.

A national campaign

Most benchtops available for purchase contain silica to some degree, but engineered benchtops can consist of as much as 90 per cent.

The CFMEU has lobbied for a quicker resolution to the issue, after the state and federal governments asked Safe Work Australia to prepare a plan to ban engineered benchtops.

The union said it would ban the use of the products on its worksites by July 2024 if the government failed to take action.

No country in the world has banned products that contain silica, but Australia is likely to be the first if the mooted changes go ahead.

The union has also called for the establishment of a national dust disease register and mandatory reporting; expanded health screening programs conducted by medical professionals; the establishment of a compensation fund, and for silica-related diseases to be included on the list of deemed diseases in Australia.

More than 10,000 Australians are expected to develop lung cancer because of exposure to silica, and over 500,000 have been exposed to its harmful dust.

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