Unions, health organisations call for total ban on silica products

April 24, 2023
CFMEU contingent at Sydney's May Day. Photo: Peter Boyle

Building industry unions and health groups, including the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH), are calling a total ban on the construction industry using engineered stone bench tops which contain silica.

Building workers in Sydney marched on April 5 to demand an end to the “killer stone”.

Products with high silica levels — commonly used in kitchen and bathroom benches — have been linked to the deadly silicosis lung disease and cancer.

Silicosis can be contracted by inhaling crystalline silica dust while cutting, grinding or drilling the engineered stone.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) want a licensing scheme for the handling, or removal, of all existing bench tops. The CFMEU wants trades people dealing with the manufactured stone to be listed on a national register and screened for silicosis.

The ACTU said in its submission to Safe Work Australia’s inquiry into the proposed ban, that engineered stone bench tops were a “fashion item,” not an essential building material.

“With alternatives readily available, why are we risking the lives of tradies for a fashionable finish in our kitchens?” ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien told the April 20 Sydney Morning Herald.

Research from Curtin University has revealed that a quarter of stonemasons who work with engineered stone products had contracted silicosis. Further, modeling showed that more than 100,000 workers will be diagnosed with silicosis in coming decades, with a significant proportion coming from the engineered stone industry; a further 10,000 workers will be diagnosed with other cancers.

The unions want a full ban until independent, peer reviewed research could determine what, in any, exposure level was safe for stonemasons and other trades people.

Federal health minister Mark Butler said in February the Labor government had only decided to monitor the silica mitigation strategy.

“We don’t need further monitoring, we need decisive action now,” CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith said.

If the government failed to ban the bench tops by mid-2024, unions would be forced to “take matters into our own hands on site”, Smith said.

“We’ve set a deadline. Either the minister steps up and fixes this by mid-2024, or our members will just refuse to touch these bench tops on construction sites across Australia.”

Some companies would attempt to water down regulations, Smith said, but he urged the government to hold firm. “These companies have been allowed to squeeze profits from the blood of Australian workers for decades. They must not be given another inch now,” he said.

“The government has no reason to delay,” Smith said.

“You have a long list of public health organisations calling for a ban; you have unions calling for a ban; you have silicosis sufferers calling for a ban. And now you even have a key manufacturer calling for a ban. It’s time to act now.”

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry opposes a blanket ban on engineered stone, as well as a licensing scheme for suppliers, arguing that all products have some level of risk.

But the AIOH said it is not possible to determine a safe amount of crystalline silica.

Professor Dino Pisaniello from the University of Adelaide’s School of Public Health said there was “no definitive scientific evidence” that health risks decreased with lower crystalline silica content.

“Dust particles less than one micrometre in size, whether from high or low silica materials, appear to generate the most inflammation in the lung, and are also the hardest to control in the workplace,” she said.

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