Silicosis has re-emerged as a significant occupational health issue in Australia, with hundreds of workers diagnosed with this lung disease since 2018. It is progressive, incurable, and can be fatal. Silicosis is caused by breathing in respirable crystalline silica (‘silica dust’) and its re-emergence is evidence that some workers are being exposed to unacceptable levels of silica dust. Currently over half a million Australians are exposed to silica dust at work every year. This is very concerning because silicosis isn’t the only health risk; silica dust is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, with prolonged exposure increasing workers’ risk of developing lung cancer. Modelling from Curtin University predicted approximately 10,000 Australians will develop lung cancer and up to 103,000 workers will be diagnosed with silicosis as the result of their current level of exposure to silica dust at work.
Part of the problem is Australians’ love of engineered stone (also known as composite, artificial, or manufactured stone) that is commonly used for our kitchen and bathroom benchtops. These products have become increasingly popular since being introduced into the Australian market in the late 1990s due to their perceived value for money, durability, and wide range of colour options. However, they contain an incredibly high amount of crystalline silica.
Crystalline silica is a common naturally occurring mineral found in stone, rock, sand, gravel, and clay. It is also found in common building materials such bricks, tiles, concrete, pavers, cement sheeting, and natural stone products. But while natural stone products such as granite contain between 20 to 45% silica, engineered stone products contain up to 95% silica.
Engineered stone benchtops (and other silica-containing materials) do not present a health risk to people in their homes when left undisturbed. But when workers cut, grind, trim, sand, or polish these products during fabrication and installation, very high levels of silica dust are released into the air, placing the worker at greater risk of exposure.
It has become very clear that it is not safe to work with engineered stone products.
Research has shown that the levels of silica dust in workplaces where they cut and work engineered stone are extremely high and difficult to adequately control even when control measures such as wet cutting are used. Workers processing engineered stone have developed silicosis that occurs earlier than with natural stone, progresses faster than would be expected given previous experience with silica exposure in other workplace settings, and progresses even after removal from exposure. It is unconscionable that these cases of silicosis, lung cancer, and other silica-related diseases arising from exposure to silica dust generated from processing engineered stone are entirely preventable.
The case for banning engineered stone in Australia
Earlier this year, Safe Work Australia conducted a public consultation to collect stakeholder feedback on three options for a prohibition on the use of engineered stone to address the risks of workplace exposure to silica dust from these materials. Safe Work Australia received over 100 submissions from stakeholders including workers, persons conducting businesses and undertakings, work health safety professionals, government agencies, industry and peak bodies, and employer and worker representatives. Seventy-nine submissions have now been published online, including Cancer Council Australia’s.
In our submission, we support the call for a prohibition on the use of engineered stone products in Australia.
Preventing exposure to silica dust from engineered stone products is the most effective way to prevent lung cancer, silicosis, and other silica-related diseases in the Australian engineered stone industry. The best way to achieve this is through the application of the hierarchy of control. Sitting atop the hierarchy of control as the most effective risk control measure is elimination. High silica content engineered stone is not manufactured in Australia and its use is not essential (it is a discretionary product). Eliminating engineered stone via a prohibition on its use is a practical and effective solution. It has been predicted that banning engineered stone would save lives by preventing approximately 100 lung cancers and 1000 silicosis cases in Australia. Therefore, we support a total ban in July 2024. We believe this is feasible, and further delaying this decision is increasing the number and likelihood of Australians being exposed to significant levels of this carcinogen and subsequently experiencing a debilitating and life-limiting lung disease.
Safe Work Australia is currently preparing a report informed by the submissions together with expert analysis that will be considered by our Work Health and Safety Ministers, who will then decide whether to prohibit the use of engineered stone. In the meantime, we need to continue to look for opportunities to protect our workers from entirely preventable diseases caused by silica dust exposure.
What can YOU do to help?
It is essential that consumers who are buying or thinking about buying engineered stone benchtops are made aware of the risks to workers so they can make informed purchasing choices and consider alternatives. There are three easy actions that you can take to help protect workers from silica dust exposure and to support a ban on engineered stone:
- Say “NO” to buying engineered stone – choose a less dangerous material for your new kitchen benchtop. Believe it or not we had kitchen benchtops before the advent of engineered stone 20 years ago! There are plenty of stylish alternatives to choose from such as timber, laminate, solid surface, recycled glass, porcelain, polished concrete, and even natural stone like marble and granite.
- Show your support – sign the Australian Unions petition to stop deadly dust.
- Be informed – visit our Silica Dust webpage and watch the 60 Minutes “Last Gasp” episode (available on 9NOW and YouTube) that highlights the consequences of silica dust exposure in the engineered stone industry.
- Spread the word! Talk to your friends and family about the health risks of silica dust exposure and the dangers of engineered stone, so that they too can be informed.
For more information about workplace carcinogens and cancer risk including useful resources please visit our KNOW Workplace Cancer webpages.
Author: Dr Matthew Govorko, KNOW Workplace Cancer Coordinator