Australia’s construction union will ban its members from working with engineered stone if the Commonwealth and states fail to ban importation and use of such products by the mid-2024.

The Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) launched a Stop the Killer Stone campaign at its National Conference on Wednesday.

As part its campaign, the union will lobby for a ban importation, manufacture and use of engineered stone products from 1 July 2024.

Should this not occur, the union will ban all of its members from working with the material – a rare form of industrial action not seen since building unions banned asbestos decades ago.

Launching the campaign, CFMEU ACT Secretary Zach Smith – who is set to take over as national secretary next year – said the importance of stopping use of engineered stone products should not be underestimated.

“Australian workers will keep dying unless we ban engineered stone,” Smith said.

“These morally bankrupt overseas companies have no social licence to sell this deadly product – and they know it. They know it is killing Australian workers but simply don’t care.

“Engineered stone is the asbestos of the 2020s. That’s exactly why we’re taking this extremely rare step of flagging a ban on CFMEU members working with this killer stone.”

THE CFMEU’s move come as concern about occupational exposure to deadly silica dust from engineered stone products has grown over recent years.

Occupational exposure to silica dust is one of the oldest known causes of lung disease.

Prolonged exposure to silica dust can lead to silicosis (which in turn may lead to breathing problems, a lung condition known as Progressive Massive Fibrosis or lung cancer) and has also been linked to greater risk of lung cancer, kidney disease, renal failure and some autoimmune diseases.

In recent years, particular concerns have arisen about silica dust exposure through the use of engineered stone products.

Around the world, these products have gained popularity for use in kitchens and in bathrooms (especially in kitchen benchtops) over recent decades on account of their low cost as well as their durability, resistance to scratching/chipping/staining, versatility and low maintenance.

Worldwide, a report from Caesarstone, a leading supplier of engineered stone surfaces, suggest that the market for engineered stone countertops grew an annual compound average of 17.9 percent between 2010 and 2016.

This report suggested that engineered stone was gaining popularity at the expense of laminate, marble and solid surfaces.

The problem with these products is their extremely high concentration of silica – which can comprise up to 97 percent of their product. As a result, these products contain a particularly high risk of workers developing breathing problems and silicosis if they breathe in dust made from these products.

(In Australia, the first case of engineered stone-related diagnosis of silicosis was identified in 54-year-old stonemason in Queensland in 2016.)

The magnitude of the problem should not be underestimated.

In July, modelling released by Curtain University suggested that up to 103,000 workers within the current workforce will be diagnosed with silicosis as a result of their exposure to silica dust at work whilst a further 10,0000 will develop lung cancer.

According to that modelling, banning engineered stone would prevent up to 100 cases of lung cancer and around one thousand cases of silicosis.

As of June 2021, screening of 1,053 stonemasons by WorkCover Queensland had revealed that almost one in four (21.4 percent) had silicosis whilst a further 13 percent had a respiratory condition that was not silicosis.

As part of an independent review of systems to protect Australians from occupational dust disease, the National Dust Disease Taskforce considered banning engineered stone benchtops.

In its final report delivered on June 2021, the Taskforce did not recommend an immediate product ban.

Instead, it recommended that work commence to prepare to implement such a ban within three years if other recommendations have failed to deliver adequate safety improvements.

The three-year timeframe, it suggested, would be sufficient to deal with legal, technical and practical measures which need to be addressed before any ban can be feasibly implemented.

Specifically, the report recommended that a process be commenced to implement a full ban on some or all engineered stoner products by July 2024 if:

  • there is no acceptable improvement in compliance and practices relating to working with engineered stone; and
  • evidence indicates that preventative measures are failing to adequately protect workers.

In an all-of-government response released in March, Commonwealth and State Governments ‘noted’ this recommendation.

The governments stressed that a ban on engineered stone will be considered only if safety improvements through implementation of other measures do not prove to be sufficient.

“A ban will only be considered if there are no measurable improvements in compliance and/or preventative measures prove to be ineffective,” the governments said in their response.

“Consideration of a ban will require Commonwealth, state and territory governments to work together to develop a comprehensive framework to evaluate the effectiveness of compliance with WHS duties and the effectiveness of measures to protect workers, including any further measures implemented following Safe Work Australia’s regulatory impact analysis process.

“Any decision to ban engineered stone products will be dependent on an objective assessment of the requirements established under the framework, noting that more time than that proposed by the Taskforce may be required to make this assessment.”

However, the CFMEU says a complete ban is necessary to protect workers.

Should this not occur by June 2024, the union will ban its own members from working with the product.

“Australia has one of the world’s most voracious cheap bench top habits and it could claim thousands of lives unless we quit,” Smith said.

“Any modest cost increase for consumers will save lives.

“In NSW alone, almost one-in-four engineered stone workers who’ve been in the industry since 2018 were suffering from silicosis or another dust-related disease.

“If the Federal Government doesn’t ban killer stone, the CFMEU will.”


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