Use of deadly engineered stone products in Australia should be banned outright, a new report from the nation’s safety regulator says.

Released by Commonwealth and state workplace safety ministers last week, the Decision Regulation Impact Statement: Prohibition on the use of engineered stone report recommended a complete ban on use of engineered stone products in Australia.

“A complete prohibition on the use of engineered stone is recommended,” the report said.

“The risks posed by working with engineered stone are serious and the possible consequences of being exposed to RCS (respirable crystalline silica, otherwise known as silica dust) generated by engineered stone are severe and sometimes fatal …

“… At present an unknown number of Australian workers will go on to develop silicosis because of their prior exposure to RCS from working with engineered stone. The only way to ensure that another generation of Australian workers do not contract silicosis from such work is to prohibit its use, regardless of its silica content.

“The cost to industry, while real and relevant, cannot outweigh the significant costs to Australian workers, their families and the broader community that result from exposure to RCS from engineered stone.”

The latest report comes as concerns about workplace safety risks associated with use of engineered stone products has grown over the past decade.

Engineered stone is manufactured product. It 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.

The product has raised concern, however, that it may be presenting hazards to workers during its manufacture and installation as a result of exposure to silica dust.

These occur when the product is cut, ground, polished or drilled. Such activities release fine particles of silica dust. If inhaled by workers, this can lead to deadly silicosis as well as lung cancer, kidney disease and pulmonary infections.

These concerns have been growing amid a surge in the number of silicosis cases which have been diagnosed throughout Australia.

Over the three-year period to 2020/21, as many as 218 workers compensation claims were accepted for silicosis.

This compares to only 41 accepted claims over the seven years from 2011/12 to 2017-18.

According to Safe Work Australia, the vast majority of claims over the three years to 2020/21 came from those involved in the benchtop manufacturing industry.

This is despite the fact that such workers make up only 2 percent of the workforce that is exposed to silica dust (see below).

In Queensland, a recent screening program as many as 11 percent of stonemasons and engineered stone workers who have been screened have had either a probable or confirmed case of silicosis.

Whilst silica dust is present in many construction materials that consist of rock, sand, glass, quartz and natural stone, the report says that engineered stone is particularly hazardous on account of several factors.

These include that:

  • Engineered stone products often have a particularly high silica content (up to 90 percent by weight), resulting in the generation of a particularly high level of dust containing when compared with other products such as natural stone.
  • Engineered stone can be processed more easily than natural stone, meaning that a greater volume of stone can be processes in a single shift (thus exposing workers to greater volumes of dust).
  • The dust produced from engineered stone has different physical properties compared with that produced from natural stone. These include a greater proportion of very small (nanoscale) particles which can penetrate deeper into the lungs.
  • Other components of engineered stone may potentially contribute to the toxic effects of engineered stone dust – either alone or by exacerbating the effects of silica dust. These include resins, metals, amorphous silica and pigments.

The latest report comes three years after the final report of the National Dust Disease Taskforce recommended in 2021 that Commonwealth and State Ministers prepare for a complete ban on use of engineered stone products for consideration from 1 July 2024 if other measures to reduce the number of workers who contract silicosis and other dust diseases failed to deliver sufficient safety improvements.

In response to this, 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 its report, Safe Work Australia considered three options.

These were:

  • A complete ban on use of all engineered stone products.
  • A ban on use of engineered stone products which contain 40 percent silica or greater.
  • A ban on use of engineered stone products which contain 40 percent silica or greater along with a compulsory licensing scheme for businesses who work with engineered stone products that contain less than 40 percent silica content.

In recommending a complete ban, Safe Work Australia indicated that there was no evidence that lower silica engineered stone products are safer.

It said that manufacturers were yet to establish through independent scientific evidence that these products did not pose an unacceptable risk to worker health and safety.

With this in mind, it said the only way to ensure that the next generation of workers are suitably protected is to ban the use of the product.

In a statement accompanying the report’s release, Commonwealth Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Tony Burke said that the Commonwealth and States would work together toward a comprehensive national response.

He says a further meeting of workplace safety minister will occur before the end of the year to decide upon next steps.

(As workplace safety is government by states and territories across Australia, any national ban on use of engineered stone would need to be agreed to by states and territories and implemented by them in order to have effect.)

Unions have called on governments to implement the recommended ban

“This recommendation by Safe Work Australia will save lives., Australian Council of Trade Unions Assistant Secretary Liam O’Brien said.

“We urge all governments to introduce it at the earliest opportunity.

“Silicosis and silica-related diseases pose an unacceptable health risk to workers. This report shows that there is no type of engineered stone that is safe for workers.

“No worker in Australia should have to plan their funeral and farewell their loved ones, all because of a lung disease they got from working with this deadly stone.

“The report made clear that there is no other option than an outright ban on engineered stone. Keeping this deadly product legal means more workers getting health problems and more workers dying.

“… we must ban this deadly fashion product once and for all.”

Joanne Wade, Head of National Asbestos and Dust Disease at plaintiff law firm Slater and Gordon, agrees.

Wade says that acting quickly on the ban will save Australian workers’ lives.

“There is no cure for silicosis and silica related diseases, but they can be prevented,” Wade said.

“It has long been our firm’s position that workers will keep dying unless we ban engineered stone and stop the exposure to this deadly dust.

“In our legal practice, we have seen increasing cases of silica-related diseases arising often at the advanced and debilitating stages, due to exposure to silica dust from engineered stone.  These cases are workers in the prime of their life, with young families, mortgages and a whole lifetime ahead of them …”

“… It’s time to draw a line in the sand and ban the use of deadly engineered stone products. Workers’ lives are on the line.”