There is a renewed effort to ban engineered stone, which is commonly used in kitchen benchtops and has been linked to an incurable lung disease similar to asbestosis. This material is cheaper than natural stone, but silica dust created during its production can be extremely hazardous. Cases of silicosis have been on the rise in the last decade, and unions are urging state governments to prohibit the material in order to protect the 600,000 workers exposed to silica dust. The Construction Forestry Maritime Mining Energy Union is also threatening to bar its members from working with engineered stone by mid-2022 unless imports are stopped and measures are taken to prevent its use.
Studies have shown that around one in four stonemasons who work with the product have developed serious lung diseases, and workers in mining, quarrying, manufacturing, building and construction can also be exposed to silica dust. According to the union’s incoming national secretary Zach Smith, engineered stone is the asbestos of the 2020s. Smith remarked, “The companies flooding our markets with this cheap and nasty material know (the dangers), but to them, profits are more important than people’s lives.”
The Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Liam O’Brien said that authorities should not delay banning engineered stone, noting, “We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past.” Kyle Goodwin, a stonemason, was diagnosed with silicosis at the age of 33 after years of cutting, shaping and polishing engineered stone benchtops. His medical team predicted he had only five years left to live due to the terminal illness.
Australian work, health and safety systems have failed to protect workers from preventable occupational diseases, according to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. Occupational and Environment Physician Dr. Warren Harrex stated that the number of diagnosed cases of silicosis had risen in the last 10 years and called for mandatory air quality monitoring in dusty workplaces. He added, “Dust exposure in workers may not be evident until retirement, with chronic obstructive lung disease contributing to a burden on public health expenditure.”