The construction industry in Victoria has expressed concern about continued uncertainty which surrounds existing contracts for building projects that involve use of the now-banned engineered stone products.

As a national ban on engineered stone came into effect on July 1, Master Builders Victoria chief executive officer Michaela Lihou acknowledged the ban’s importance in terms of worker safety.

However, she expressed concern about uncertainty surrounding disputes which may arise out of existing contracts in which use of engineered stone in benchtops, panels or slabs has been specified.

“Obviously, the health and safety of everyone in our industry is of paramount concern,” Lihou said.

“But with the introduction of this legislation, unfortunately we don’t have any clarity around how potential disputes will be resolved.

“For example, if there is a current contract which specifies the use of engineered stone – which understandably now can’t be used – what happens if there is a time or cost blowout in sourcing an acceptable alternative? Is it the builder or consumer who wears that cost?”

“We would have hoped for some clarity around this, particularly given there is no transition period for the change.”

According to Lihou, variations to construction contracts can be requested at any point by either a builder or a consumer. Potentially, builders could therefore request a variation in order to adjust the contract price and delivery timelines so as to allow for any additional costs and time which are needed to source alternative materials that may be required as a result of the ban.

However, the challenge with this is that consumers can choose to either accept or decline the builder’s request for such a variation.

Where the latter case occurs, builders will be left to absorb any additional costs which are associated with the ban within their own profit margins.

“Currently the Domestic Building Contracts Act doesn’t cite a legislative change as a prescribed reason for an allowable variation,” Lihou says.

“So, our concern is that there may be circumstances where the variations to contracts, which will be forced by this legislation, will create disputes between our members and their clients for changes that are clearly outside the control of the builder,” she says.

“We call on all parties to work constructively to resolve any issues in a fair and equitable manner”.

The latest call comes as a national ban on engineered stone came into force across Australia on July 1.

Essentially speaking, engineered stone is a composite slab of stone that is generally made up of crushed stone which is bound together by an adhesive to create a solid surface.

Over recent decades, the product has become popular in terms of use in kitchen benchtops on account of its low cost, durability, ease of cleaning and resistance to scratching and staining.

The decision to ban it, however, followed ongoing concern that manufacture and use of the product may be leading to silicosis and other lung diseases among workers who are involved in its manufacture and installation.

This occurs as workers are exposed to dust over time as a result of cutting, grinding, trimming, drilling, sanding and polishing.

Under the ban, the use, supply, or manufacture of engineered stone products has been prohibited across Australia.

Exceptions apply in respect of work that relates to ‘legacy stone’ products. This includes repairs, minor adjustments and product removal.

The decision to implement the ban followed years of lobbying by unions and public health advocacy groups.

CFMEU National Secretary Zach Smith celebrated the ban’s commencement.

Smith paid tribute to union members who had fought for the ban. This includes Kyle Goodwin, – a former stonemason who has silicosis and has dedicated himself to fighting for a ban on the product’s use.

“Our union has stopped the asbestos of the 2020s in its tracks,” he said.

“This ban will save lives and protect workers’ families and friends from enduring more senseless deaths.

“This is a once-in-a-generation moment for workplace health and safety, only made possible by the sheer bravery of union members.”

 

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