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Engineered stone and respiratory health risks for workers in NSW and Australia-wide

Engineered stone and respiratory health risks for workers in NSW and Australia-wide

Published on January 22, 2024 by Tim GauciTim Gauci

Engineered stone, a popular choice for countertops, has proven popular due to its aesthetic appeal, cost, durability, and versatility. However, in recent years there has been focus on the serious health concerns linked to engineered stone including long-term respiratory illness and premature death. In this article, we will delve into what engineered stone is, the serious respiratory health problems it poses for workers, and the call for the ban of its use in Australia.

What is engineered stone?

Engineered stone, often known by but not limited to brand names like Caesarstone, Silestone, or Quantum Quartz, is a popular material used for kitchen and bathroom countertops, as well as other interior surfaces. It is made by combining crushed natural stone, such as quartz, with polymer resins and pigments to create a durable and attractive surface. The result is a versatile material with a wide range of colours and patterns that mimics the look of natural stone at a much cheaper cost, hence the popularity.

What exactly are the health risks linked to engineered stone?

While engineered stone offers many advantages, there is a notable downside associated with its production and fabrication. Engineered stone contains a high concentration of crystalline silica, a naturally occurring mineral found in quartz, which poses a significant respiratory health risk when airborne. The fine dust produced during the cutting, grinding, and polishing of engineered stone surfaces can be inhaled by workers and lead to severe health problems, including:

i. Silicosis prolonged exposure to respirable crystalline silica dust can lead to silicosis, an irreversible and often debilitating lung disease. Silicosis causes scarring of lung tissue, leading to symptoms such as coughing, breathlessness, and increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. There is no cure for silicosis and if developed, life expectancy is diminished.

ii. Lung cancer – inhaling crystalline silica over an extended period is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. Most cases are not curable and significantly reduce a worker’s life expectancy.

iii. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)silica exposure can contribute to the development of COPD, a progressive lung condition which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis and is characterised by breathing difficulties and shortness of breath.

Silica dust exposure also increases the risk of developing chronic kidney disease, autoimmune disorders (such as scleroderma and systemic lupus erythematosus) and other adverse health effects, including an increased risk of activating latent tuberculosis, eye irritation and eye damage. The risk posed by engineered stone is being touted as the new asbestos in terms of the health ramifications for workers in Australia.

Legislative amendments to the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) and SafeWork Australia’s call for a national ban

In response to growing concern over the health risks associated with engineered stone, the NSW government has previously introduced amendments to the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) which were designed to safeguard the health and well-being of workers in the engineered stone industry.

These measures included reduced exposure limits, mandatory health assessments, improved monitoring, and compliance as well as education and training, and dust control measures which required employers to implement effective dust control measures, including proper ventilation, wet cutting methods, and the use of suitable personal protective equipment.

To date however, persons conducting a business in this industry, workers and regulators have failed to ensure the health and safety of all workers working with engineered stone. In particular, the lack of effective monitoring and compliance, despite some smaller and sporadic wins, remains a big issue within the industry.

SafeWork Australia (SWA) has called for a complete ban of the use of engineered stone in Australia. It has undertaken significant work since 2018 to improve WHS arrangements to prevent dust diseases including silicosis. This has included amendments to NSW WHS legislation, however in February 2023 WHS ministers agreed to SWA’s recommendations to address workplace exposure to respirable crystalline silica through national awareness and change in behaviour initiatives, and further regulation for all materials across all industries (which includes engineered stone).

SWA undertook extensive analysis and consultation on the impacts of a prohibition on the use of engineered stone and provided its decision in a report to WHS Ministers on 16 August 2023 for their consideration. The expert analysis undertaken shows that dust from engineered stone poses unique hazards, and there is no evidence that lower silica engineered stone is safer to work with, meaning there is no safe level of exposure for workers. SWA has recommended a prohibition on the use of all engineered stone, irrespective of the crystalline silica content. There is also a recommendation of the introduction of a licensing scheme to ensure appropriate controls are in place to protect worker health when engineered stone already in place needs to be removed, repaired, or modified.

Silicosis and dust diseases pose an unacceptable health risk to workers in Australia, and it is important to note that there are significant financial and non-financial costs associated with being diagnosed with silicosis or a dust disease, including significant physical and emotional harm, the reduced ability to work, reduced quality of life and ultimately premature death of workers. There are also significant costs to the public health system and in turn our economy.

SWA recommends urgent government intervention, due to the disproportionate number of silicosis cases in engineered stone workers, the younger age of diagnosis of silicosis and dust related diseases in engineered stone workers, and the impacts on workers, their families, and the wider community. The decision to prohibit the use of some or all engineered stone is a matter for WHS ministers who will meet later this year. It is clear that while engineered stone revolutionised interior design, the long-term health risks for workers involved in its fabrication and installation outweighs the gain.

Dust disease claims in New South Wales are a complex, and understanding the key aspects is essential for those affected. If you or someone you know is suffering from a dust-related disease, or has died as a result, seeking legal advice and guidance is crucial to ensure that your rights and entitlements are protected. Contact us at Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers on 1800 059 278 or via our Contact Page and one of our lawyers will assist you. You can also complete our Personal Injury Claim Check here.

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