Australia has moved closer to a likely ban on high silica content engineered stone products, with the nation’s regulator for workplace safety being charged with examining a potential ban on the use of the materials.

Convening during a meeting on Tuesday, state and Commonwealth workplace safety ministers agreed to several measures to improve workplace safety across Australia.

In particular, the ministers agreed that Safe Work Australia would be asked to conduct analysis and consultation in regard to a potential ban on the use of engineered stone products to be included under the national model work, health and safety laws.

The Commonwealth will also explore a potential ban on the importation of engineered stone products.

A manufactured product, engineered stone is essentially a composite slab of stone that is generally made from crushed quartz and other materials which are bound together using a polymer resin.

It has gained popularity for use in kitchen and bathroom benchtops over the past decade on account of its low cost compared with other slab stone products such as marble.

However, these products have raised concern on account of their high silica content, which can comprise up to 97 percent of the product.

Exposure to silica dust when the stone is cut can lead to serious health effects, including the deadly silicosis and other forms of lung disease.

Whilst silica (also known as silicon-dioxide) is present in many construction materials consisting of rock, sand, glass, quartz and natural stone, the high silica content associated with engineered stone has driven particular concern around this product.

These concerns are particularly severe amid a re-emergence of silicosis cases which has occurred in recent years after several decades of very few cases having occurred.

As at June 2021, a National Dusk Taskforce report (see below) indicated the nation had at least 477 people living with silicosis – with most cases having been diagnosed over the prior three years and having been linked to inhaling dust whilst cutting and polishing engineered stone.

Last year, Curtin University warned that without action, more than 103,000 current Australian workers would be diagnosed with silicosis at some stage in their life whilst a further 10,000 would develop lung cancer.

As a result, calls from unions and healthcare bodies to ban high-silica content products have been growing.

In its final report in 2021, the National Dust Disease Taskforce did not recommend an immediate ban on engineered stone products but recommended that work commence to prepare the groundwork for consideration of such a ban from the middle of 2024 if other measures had failed to deliver sufficient safety improvements.

Furthermore, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) has indicated that it will ban its members from working with engineered stone products from July 2024 if no ban on their importation or use is in place.

In a communique following last Tuesday’s meeting, the workplace ministers indicated that they had tasked Safe Work Australia to conduct analysis and consultation on a potential ban of engineered stone use which may be considered in the national model work, health and safety laws.

Safe Work Australia will also consider a national licensing system for working with products that contain silica but are either not subject to any bans or are legacy products which have already been installed into homes and buildings.

As well, the Commonwealth will examine a possible ban on importing engineered stone products.

Considerations regarding potential bans will include appropriate silica content levels as well as definitions, timing and impacts on affected workers and businesses.

Apart from the specific action on engineered stone, the ministers also agreed to implement stronger regulation of high-risk crystalline silica processes for all materials (including engineered stone) across all industries where workers are at high risk of silicosis.

This includes through:

  • Additional training requirements
  • A requirement to conduct air monitoring and report incidents where workplace exposure standards are exceeded to the relevant regulator
  • Scoping new and updated model Codes of Practice for at-risk industries.

Ministers also agreed to work with unions and employers to deliver national initiatives to promote awareness and behaviour change in high-risk occupations.

In a statement, the CFMEU welcomed the meeting’s outcomes – especially the proposed ban on engineered stone and the licensing scheme for working with existing engineering stone products.

But the union warned that it would follow through on its plan to ban its members from working with engineered stone should a government ban fail to materialise.

“Today is a great step towards banning this killer stone,” CFMEU National Secretary Zach Smith said.

“But our union will not rest until it’s illegal to import and manufacture engineered stone in Australia.

“The CFMEU’s position is unmoved. If Governments don’t carry through on banning engineered stone, the union will. July 2024 remains our deadline.”

Industry lobby groups, however, responded more cautiously.

In a statement following the meeting, Master Builders Australia acknowledged the importance of reducing silica-related exposure risks and commended governments for addressing the issue in a nationally coordinated manner.

But it stressed that any ban should only be implemented after extensive consultation to ensure that impacts arising from any decisions are well known and understood.

It warned that any blanket ban on engineered stone products could send the wrong message to those manufactures who are developing new and innovative materials with low silica content.

Master Builders also urged the government to undertake industry-wide testing over the next six months to determine the effectiveness of work already done by industry and regulators to control silica related risk – something it said would help both industry and government better understand silica related hazards and how to effectively mitigate these.

“One work-related death is one too many. Like the unions, we want work in our industry to be safe …,” Master Builders said in a statement.

“… We strongly support additional work being undertaken on silica-related exposure risks and we acknowledge the concerning rates of preventable lung disease caused by uncontrolled dust exposure, particularly when working with engineered stone.

“… Following the decision to task Safe Work Australia (SWA) to undertake further analysis on a prohibition of the use of engineered stone, we stress the importance for government to undertake extensive consultation to ensure the impacts arising from any future decisions are well known and understood.

“Manufacturers have invested significant funds into developing new, innovative products with low silica content in response to concerns about the high percentage of silica in current engineered stone. Any blanket ban that is not risk proportionate would send the wrong message to businesses that are innovating and investing to continuously improve products and processes to minimise risk.”


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