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Review underway as workers pay a deadly price for cheaper engineered-stone bench tops

Many engineered-stone bench tops could be taken off the market as governments consider whether materials with dangerous levels of silica should be banned.

After a meeting of federal and state officials this week, Safe Work Australia will review silica products, and whether a ban is needed.

The response comes amid growing public outcry over the health risks facing workers exposed to silica dust, which can cause the deadly lung condition silicosis.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has described silicosis as a “silent epidemic”.

Figures published by Curtin University and the ACTU last year estimated 585,050 Australian workers are exposed to silica dust, with 47 per cent subjected to “high levels” of the substance.

Researchers predicted 83,090 cases of silicosis will arise in future as a result of occupational exposure to silica dust, alongside more than 7500 additional cases of lung cancer nationwide.

engineered-stone

The ACTU describes silicosis as a “silent epidemic”.

A cheaper product

Engineered stone is a composite material made of crushed stone which is bound by an adhesive.

Engineered stone has become popular as an affordable alternative to natural stone, typically costing between $400 to $600 per square metre, according to Hipages.

That’s much less than marble and granite, which can cost up to $3500 per square metre.

It is a severe health risk for workers cutting the stone because it contains silica dust, which causes deadly and incurable  silicosis, a growing body of research has found.

The lung disease is caused by inhaling particles of silica dust produced when engineered stone is cut or filed; health experts have previously likened the stone substance to asbestos.

The public outcry after a Nine Newspapers and 60 Minutes feature in February on the subject has brought action from governments, which on Tuesday said domestic use of engineered-stone bench tops that contain high amounts of silica could be outlawed.

Safe Work explores ban

Under an agreement between federal, state and territory ministers, Safe Work Australia will now explore whether a ban on certain stone bench tops is required, and what that would look like.

There was speculation governments would immediately press ahead with outlawing products with high levels of silica, but speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Minister for Employment Tony Burke said a review was necessary to determine where regulators should draw the line.

“Not all engineered stone is at 97 [or] 98 per cent silica. There are some forms that are at much lower levels and percentages and, therefore, present a much lower risk,” Mr Burke said.

“What we’ve asked Safe Work Australia to do is scope out if there were to be a prohibition, where that line would be drawn, and then to also scope out how you can have a nationally consistent licensing system for whatever remains as being viewed as safe.”

Mr Burke said that once Safe Work Australia completes its review there will be another meeting of ministers to determine whether a ban is needed, and if so under what concentration level.

Renee Carey, a senior research fellow at Curtin University, said that if governments do decide to ban only some types of engineered bench tops then those products which aren’t banned must be tightly regulated.

“The safest approach (and arguably the one which would be simplest to implement) is to ban all engineered stone, regardless of its composition,” Dr Carey told The New Daily.

“If we do follow the approach suggested, the determination of what level of silica is ‘safe’ needs to be based on health risks and consider the exposure levels to silica which are likely to lead to health effects in workers.”

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