The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining, and Energy Union (CFMMEU) is urging the federal government to ban engineered stone by July 2024, calling it the asbestos of the 2020s. At the CFMMEU conference in Melbourne, the union launched a campaign “Stop this Killer Stone” which aimed to highlight the dangers of working with engineered stone on tradies health. The union will encourage industrial action from its members if the ban on engineered stone is not enforced by the Australian Government.
Dangers of Engineered Stone
Engineered stone is a manufactured material used mainly for kitchen benchtops and bathroom fittings. It has grown in popularity over recent years as a durable option for consumers, imitating the look of marble or natural stone products without the price tag.
The issue is that engineered stone contains up to 95% crystalline silica and when cut or drilled, fine silica particles are sent into the air. The silica dust is extremely dangerous if breathed in and can cause silicosis, an incurable disease of the lungs. As the silica particles are so fine, they cannot be seen and could affect anyone on the worksite where the stone is being cut.
Silicosis case numbers are rapidly rising in Australia with more than 600 workers in NSW, Victoria and Queensland already diagnosed with the lung disease, many of these cases have been related to workers who manufacture or install engineered stone. The union said modelling by Curtin University estimated up to 103,000 worker will be diagnosed with silicosis as a result of their current exposure to silica dust at work.
Many states of Australia recently banned dry cutting of engineered stone and enforced that anyone working with it must hold the appropriate licence. The CFMMEU is concerned that the risks are still to great and more needs to be done by the government to protect workers and prevent more cases of Silicosis.
There is already one major insurer that is no longer insuring workers and companies who use the engineered stone because the liability is too great.
What is Silicosis?
Silicosis is an incurable lung disease caused by inhaling tiny particles of silica, called crystalline silica.Silica is a mineral that is found in construction materials such as sand, concrete, rocks and glass and is commonly used to make kitchen benches, bathrooms, bricks, tiles and some plastics.
When crystalline silica is inhaled, the particles get stuck in the lungs, causing scarring and making it hard to breathe. If you are exposed to high levels of dust for a length of time, or work with products containing a high amount of silica you are at risk of getting Silicosis. Unlike asbestos-related diseases, which usually emerge in older age, silicosis is striking Australians in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
Silicosis is now a notifiable disease, with any new cases required by law to be reported to the government and added to the Silicosis Health Register.
Symptoms of Silicosis
The main symptoms of silicosis are:
- Shortness of breath after exercising,
- Chest pain,
- Harsh, dry cough
In some cases, there may be no symptoms in the early stages of silicosis however as the condition worsens, the symptoms will become more severe and can be fatal. Silicosis can also increase the risk of getting other serious conditions such as tuberculosis (TB), chest infections, emphysema, kidney damage and lung cancer. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for silicosis.
If you work, or have worked with products that create silica dust and are experiencing any of these symptoms make an urgent appointment with your doctor.
Workplace Health and Safety Measures
All workplaces, employers and employees in Australia must comply with their workplace health and safety procedures.
Silicosis can be prevented by:
- avoiding prolonged exposure to silica dust
- wearing protective masks (but not disposable paper ones)
- wetting down tools and materials to suppress dust
- using tools that have dust-collecting attachments
- Wear disposable protective clothes at the worksite.
For more information on Crystalline silica and silicosis, visit the Safe Work Australia website.