ACTU supports CFMEU call to ban engineered stone

October 27, 2023
Unions mobilise against the use of engineered stone which can cause silicosis. Photo: CFMEU NSW/Facebook

Thousands of Construction Forestry Mining and Energy (CFMEU) members and delegates, together with contingents from the Electrical Trades Union, NSW Plumbers Union and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union to the streets on October 26 to again call on governments to immediately ban engineered and manufactured stone products.

Federal and state work health and safety ministers are meeting on October 27.

The unionists marched from Belmore Park to rally outside the NSW Parliament. NSW CFMEU Secretary Darren Greenfield called on the ministers “to come forward, stand up, have a backbone and get rid of this stone”.

CFMEU National Secretary Zach Smith told the protest that “the price of failure on this campaign is inconceivable” because it impacts human lives.

“This product is killing workers now. In all but the rarest of situations that diagnosis is a death sentence.

“The fact that we have to hit the streets is a disgrace in itself. It’s a moral failure of our governments and our society that we have to stand and take this action.”

The Victorian CFMEU secretary John Setka, Queensland secretary Michael Ravbar and WA secretary Mick Buchan also addressed the protest.

Silicosis is a long-term, incurable lung disease caused when fine particles of silica enter a person’s lungs.

Workers in the stone masonry, stone cutting, construction, demolition, worktop manufacturing and fitting, pottery, glass, mining, quarrying and sandblasting industries are at a high risk of coming into contact with materials containing silica.

Silicosis normally develops after long-term exposure; symptoms include a persistent cough, shortness of breath and weakness and tiredness.

The incurable disease, which can kill, can also lead to other severe and life-threatening conditions such as tuberculosis, heart failure, lung cancer and kidney disease.

According to the CFMEU more than half a million workers are exposed to silica dust and more than 600 workers in NSW, Victoria and Queensland have silicosis.

It said 103,000 people will contract silicosis in their lifetime and 10,000 will develop lung cancer unless engineered stone is banned now.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) decided on October 24 to support the CFMEU ban and take steps to end the use of engineered stone by mid 2024 if government bans are not already in place.

This means union members will not allow engineered stone to be imported, manufactured or used on building sites.

This will protect thousands of workers who work with this deadly material regularly used in kitchen bench tops and who are exposed to high levels of silica dust.

The ACTU said a significant proportion of stonemasons who have undergone a health screening have been found to have the incurable, debilitating and sometimes fatal lung disease silicosis.

Since 2015 when silicosis associated with engineered stone was first reported, the number of diagnoses has risen dramatically.

While workers across a range of industries have been affected, a disproportionate number of silicosis diagnoses have been found among those working with engineered stone.

A 2021 National Dust Disease Task Force report found nearly one in four workers exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust from engineered stone have been diagnosed with silicosis and other silica-related diseases.

ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien said multinational corporations which manufacture and import engineered stone had failed to warn and protect workers.

“We welcome the decision by ministers earlier this year to introduce stronger silica rules covering all work, but we must do more to ban this deadly fashion product,” O’Brien added.

He said workers who had contracted silicosis needed to be supported “with improved medical treatment and compensation”.

The ACTU is pushing for a national health monitoring and silicosis screening for workers exposed to silica dust.

The CFMEU said that timber, porcelain, solid surface, laminate, stainless steel and recycled glass are safe alternatives.

Smith accused Master Builders NSW, which is campaigning against the ban, of “profiting from the deaths of Australian workers”.

“They are playing silly word games while tradies die slow and painful deaths from silicosis and other dust diseases,” he said on October 25.

Abigail Boyd, Greens NSW spokesperson for Workplace Health and Safety, said Victoria had regulated engineered stone to silica concentrations below 40% but “still workers are being exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust and contracting silicosis”.

She said estimates by the former NSW Coalition revealed “it would cost nothing … to save thousands of lives by banning engineered stone”.

“Just as with asbestos, a total ban is the only tenable response,” Boyd said.

[For more information on the union campaign to ban engineered stone visit #StopThisKillerStone.]

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