Push for a ban on deadly silica intensifies

Silica ban being considered

The popularity of engineered stone kitchen benchtops is risking lives for a “fashionable finish” unions say, as the push intensifies for a ban on those that contain deadly silica.

Products with high silica levels – commonly used in kitchen and bathroom benches – have been linked to the incurable lung disease silicosis and cancer.

Medical professionals, health and safety experts and unions are stepping up their campaign for a national ban regardless of silica concentration, arguing there is no safe level of exposure.

In submissions to Safe Work Australia on Thursday, the groups also recommended a licensing scheme for the safe handling or removal of all existing benchtops and a national register for tradies dealing with manufactured stone to be screened for silicosis.

States and territories agreed in February to consider banning the potentially deadly stone products.

ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien described engineered stone as a “fashion product that is killing the workers who make it”.

“With alternatives readily available, why are we risking the lives of tradies for a fashionable finish in our kitchens?” he said.

Inhaling crystalline silica dust while cutting, grinding or drilling the engineered stone can lead to silicosis.

The ACTU said the latest research revealed one in four stonemasons who worked with engineered stone products had contracted the deadly lung disease.

Construction Forestry Maritime Mining Energy Union national secretary Zach Smith said if the government failed to ban the benchtops by mid-2024, unions would be forced to “take matters into our own hands on site”.

“We’ve set a deadline.

“Either the minister steps up and fixes this by mid-2024 or our members will just refuse to touch these benchtops on construction sites across Australia,” he said.

Some companies would attempt to water down regulations but he urged the government to hold firm.

“These companies have been allowed to squeeze profits from the blood of Australian workers for decades. They must not be given another inch now,” he said.

Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has given Safe Work until August to outline the implications of a potential ban on engineered stone.

An estimated 600,000 workers have been exposed to silica dust generated through mining, construction, building and manufacturing.

A Curtin University study has put the total number of deadly and incurable disease silicosis at more than 100,000 people and estimated 10,000 workers would develop lung cancer from dust exposure.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry opposes a blanket ban on engineered stone as well as a licensing scheme for suppliers, arguing all products have some level of risk.

The Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists supported the ban, arguing it is not possible to determine a safe amount of crystalline silica.

Professor Dino Pisaniello from the University of Adelaide’s School of Public Health said there was “no definitive scientific evidence” that health risks decreased with lower crystalline silica content.

“Dust particles less than one micrometre in size, whether from high or low silica materials, appear to generate the most inflammation in the lung, and are also the hardest to control in the workplace,” she said.

Mr Burke said ministers would meet again on the issue in coming months, following the release of the report by the work safety watchdog.


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