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Unions call for engineering stone ban amid rising silicosis cases

Major Australian unions have urged governments to introduce a ban on the use of engineered stone products, saying that inaction runs the risk of an asbestos-like health crisis.

The joint announcement from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Australian Workers’ Union, and the CFMEU has called on more robust protections for more than 600,000 at-risk workers across mining, construction and other industries against products with high densities of silica.

The unions warn that without appropriate workplace protections, governments “run the risk of repeating the asbestos tragedy, which continues to claim the lives of more than 4000 Australians each year.”

“A failure to take these necessary steps will further risk thousands of workers contracting silicosis, an incurable and sometimes fatal lung disease,” the announcement said.

Silicosis and other dust-related disease case numbers have notably risen in the past decade as workers continue to be exposed to inhalation of respirable crystalline silica (RCS) dust.

As Insurance News magazine has reported, some insurers are already reacting to rising numbers of silicosis cases and claims.

Research from Curtin University has modelled that up to 100,000 Australians could be diagnosed with silicosis over a lifetime, based on current occupational RCS exposure.

The model linked the increase in manufacturing work and the use of engineered stone products as key contributors to the high levels of RCS exposure to workers.

Engineered stone products, such as kitchen benchtops, contain notably higher quantities of silica dust than natural stone products and recycled glass, which have been promoted as alternatives.

AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton recognised findings from the National Dust Disease Taskforce that revealed one in four workers tested after RCS exposure from engineered stone before 2018 were diagnosed with silicosis or other silica-related diseases.

The taskforce found a “systemic failure to recognise and control the risk associated with producing benchtops from engineered stone”. It recommended a ban on silica products by July 2024 if the product could not be found to be used safely.

“This deadly dust doesn’t discriminate. Silica dust exposure is a problem that extends beyond engineered stone products to industries like mining and tunnelling,” Mr Walton said.

“We’re calling on all governments – state and federal – to introduce regulations in line with the Victorian Silica Regulations and Compliance Code.”

ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien says that ministers should be “mindful of the history and legacy of asbestos in Australia,” noting that a complete ban on the building material was not put in place until 2003, despite decades of known risks and exposures.

“The evidence is clear that silica dust generated in the manufacturing of engineered stone is a serious health risk for workers, many of whom will go on to develop the incurable, debilitating and life-threatening silicosis,” Mr O’Brien said.

“We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

The unions say they will meet with workplace health and safety ministers on February 28.