The calls to ban engineered stone kitchen benchtops and similar building products are understandably growing louder. This may be the only acceptable path if we cannot adequately protect workers from a lung condition that is eerily similar to that caused by asbestos in generations past.
Engineered stone, a composite material that is used as a relatively inexpensive alternative to natural marble or granite, is not hazardous in the home in day-to-day use. But when it is cut, ground, sanded, polished or shaped without appropriate safety procedures, including the use of industrial respirators, it exposes workers and others in the immediate environment to fine particles called crystalline silica, which, when inhaled, can lodge deep in the lungs and cause the deadly disease silicosis.
While superficially similar to asbestosis, silicosis can cause symptoms much earlier in life, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, sleeping problems and weight loss. It can then develop into fatal conditions such as progressive massive fibrosis and increases the likelihood of lung cancer and tuberculosis. There is no cure. A 2005 study of Chinese workers exposed to silica dust in the early 1970s found only 25 per cent had survived more than 33 years after receiving a diagnosis of silicosis.
In 2019, the federal government launched the National Dust Disease Taskforce to report on control and management of dust diseases including silicosis. In its final report in 2021, it found that nearly one in four workers who had cut engineered stone and had been in the industry since before 2018 were now suffering from silicosis or silica dust-related diseases. It recommended that “further decisive action is required to better protect workers in dust-generating industries and to support affected workers and their families”.
Modelling by Curtin University in a study commissioned by the ACTU has predicted up to 103,000 workers will eventually be diagnosed with silicosis and another 10,000 with lung cancer after being exposed to the potentially deadly dust. Court cases are mounting up.
Some efforts have already been made to reduce the risks. Workers are safer when the stone is cut wet, limiting the release of dust; consequently dry cutting of the stone was banned in Queensland in 2018, Victoria in 2019 and NSW in 2020. Regulations are inconsistent across the states.
Yet, a joint investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes suggests some employers are continuing to cut corners and that compliance to relevant codes is at times enforced less than optimally. As investigative journalists Adele Ferguson and Amelia Ballinger report: “documents, photographs and damning video footage … have uncovered a dark underbelly of workplace health and safety, where workers are left unprotected by a system that allows companies to put profit before workers’ health.”
A former engineered stone worker who was diagnosed with silicosis in 2019 told this masthead conditions at his factory were like being in hell. “You can’t see more than a couple of feet in front of you for the dust,” he said. “It’s in your clothes, in your skin, in your eyes, car, you take it home with you. It’s just everywhere.” He was given a life expectancy of five to 10 years.
SafeWork NSW claims that silica compliance had been a priority since 2017. However, Sophie Cotsis, NSW opposition work health and safety spokeswoman, said: “The regulator goes in and does nothing. This has to change, this culture has to change.” In December 2022 Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke told federal parliament that urgent action was still needed “to protect workers from future harm and to support those who have already been failed”.
NSW Minister for Customer Service Victor Dominello deserves credit for recognising there is a major issue here and pushing to bring forward a decision on whether to ban engineered stone sooner than the current timeline of 2024.
In November last year, the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union declared if the federal government did not ban engineered stone by July 2024 it would take industrial action to prevent its use by members. The union has been joined by medical professionals and industry workers who believe if we cannot successfully enforce safe work practices nationally this is the only practical response to what is clearly an emerging health crisis. Our investigation suggests the same.
This article was originally published on the Sydney Morning Herald website.