construction worker in respirator

Consumers still want their luxury benchtops but the deadly disease that can be triggered by manufactured upmarket stone products is dangerous. 

Even though the dangers are well known, about 16 per cent of fabrication work sites are in breach of the legislated standard.

Engineered stone can contain silica in concentrations of up to 80 to 90 per cent, with sandstone 70 to 90 per cent. That’s a lot of danger for a pretty benchtop.

“Nearly one-in-four engineered stone workers who have been in the industry since 2018 are suffering from silicosis or some other dust-related disease.”

Many small businesses working on household construction projects operate as independent contractors and are often from non-English speaking backgrounds, and therefore are often not protected by trade unions, putting them at risk of unsafe working conditions and working without personal protective equipment.

“If one-in-four workers in any other industry were being poisoned by their work environment there would be widespread outrage and demands for action. That should be no different for stone and construction workers.”

Last week the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) called on New South Wales parliament to take a stand and ban the products. The dust from cutting manufactured stone exposes workers to the risk of deadly lung diseases including silicosis, it says. 

Darren Greenfield, CFMEU NSW secretary told The Fifth Estate that, “crystalline silica is extraordinarily toxic at even the lowest detectable levels.”

“This product is killing workers and placing strain on the finances of the New South Wales Dust Diseases Scheme,” the union said in a media statement.

“Insurers will not touch this deadly product for good reason, and it is time for NSW to read the tea leaves and implement a ban on its production and sale,” Mr Greenfield said.

“Nearly one-in-four engineered stone workers who have been in the industry since 2018 are suffering from silicosis or some other dust-related disease.

“If one-in-four workers in any other industry were being poisoned by their work environment there would be widespread outrage and demands for action. That should be no different for stone and construction workers.”

This comes as last month the Australian Workers’ Union made a submission to the NSW Legislative Council Review Standing Committee on Law and Justice calling on the NSW government to widen the scope of reviews and recommendations to its Dust Diseases Scheme “to include every worker in all dust-prone sectors”, stronger regulatory framework, and suitable workers’ compensation laws to provide ongoing financial support and compensation for workers and their immediate families.  

“There are approximately 600,000 Australian workers currently exposed to silica dust,” AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said.

“We will see a tsunami of silicosis in the coming years and decades if swift preventative, regulatory and compensatory measures are not quickly adopted by governments to protect workers exposed to silica dust.”

Silicoses, or scarring of the lungs, is a serious incurable lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust. In severe cases, damage to the lungs caused by silicosis can require a lung transplant or may lead to death.

Inhalation of silica dust can also lead to the development of lung cancer, kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Estimates hold that 230 people per year develop lung cancer as a result of silica dust exposure at work.

Crystalline silica is a natural mineral found in construction materials including concrete, bricks, tiles, mortar and engineered stone. When cutting, grinding, sanding, demolishing or drilling materials that contain silica, tiny particles of dust can be released into the air that are small enough to breathe into your lungs. 

The amount of crystalline silica in products can vary. But in engineered stone, it can be from 80 to 90 per cent, according to Work Safe Victoria

The AWU says that silica levels in sandstone range from 70 to 100 per cent, and cement and mortar from 25 to 70 per cent.

Darren Greenfield said that it has become increasingly understood that the high respirable crystalline silica content (commonly up to 98 per cent) presents an extreme risk of silicosis. 

“The toxicity of crystalline silica from manufactured stone is so severe that the recognised air concentration for healthy work is 0.02 per cent micrograms per cubic metre. However, the current legislated standard is more than twice this concentration at 0.05 mcg a cubic metre. 

“Exacerbating the failure of current regulations, the substance is so toxic that there are currently no practicable means of monitoring/measuring the crystalline silica at a density of 0.02 mcg a cubic metre. 

“Even taking into account that the current workplace exposure standard of 0.05 mcg/ a cubic metre is more than twice the healthy exposure limit, data from SafeWork NSW shows that about 16 per cent of fabrication worksites are in breach of the legislated standard.”

Manufactured stone is used throughout residential building construction for kitchen bench tops and is also used throughout the corporate sector for office design, Mr Greenfield explained. It was developed in the 1990s “to meet demand for a smooth benchtop aesthetic”. There are no local companies producing manufactured stone.

Materials such as manufactured stone, common in kitchen design, contain high concentrations of silica, a potentially deadly material.

Substitutes include wood, steel and laminates, and natural stones such as marble that contain silica in a “less concentrated form”. According to Mr Greenfield, manufactured stone companies are now beginning to examine the possibility of manufacturing low silica content products.

“Silicosis is a killer and manufactured stone products pose an unacceptable risk to workers and must be banned,” Mr Greenfield said. 

Mr Greenfield says that CFMEU enterprise agreements provide that all workers must receive nationally accredited silica awareness training. 

CFMEU stated that data from SafeWork NSW tabled in parliament last year revealed a high rate of industry non-compliance with workplace exposure standards.

“Manufactured stone is not essential to our economy, it’s an architectural fashion which has only existed since the 1990s. This unnecessary and deadly product should have no place in Australian homes and workplaces.”

In an emailed response on the matter a SafeWork NSW spokesperson said: “The NSW Government is aware of the recommendation of the final report of the National Dust Diseases Taskforce in relation to the possible ban on the importation of some manufactured stone products, if other measures have not resulted in improvements by July 2024.  

“The government is working on a collaborative and coordinated response with other states, territories and the Commonwealth to respond to this and all other recommendations.”

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