Australia is set to prohibit the utilization, distribution, and production of engineered stone, a decision hailed as life-saving. Following a meeting of state and federal workplace ministers, a unanimous agreement was reached to ban this material commonly used in kitchen and bathroom countertops. The product, when cut, releases fine silica dust linked to fatal diseases and cancers. The majority of jurisdictions plan to implement the ban starting July 1, 2024, with Victoria, Queensland, and New South Wales confirming their commitment to this date.
Victoria’s minister for WorkSafe, Danny Pearson, emphasized the unacceptable risk to workers and stated that exposure to fatal dangers at the workplace should not be tolerated. Queensland’s industrial relations minister, Grace Grace, labeled the product as hazardous, known to cause the potentially fatal disease silicosis, and declared it unfit for workplaces. New South Wales’ minister for work health and safety, Sophie Cotsis, commended the collaborative effort of workers, unions, medical experts, and businesses advocating for the ban. She urged businesses and consumers to cease buying the material and not enter into new contracts.
The federal government hinted at a customs prohibition on engineered stone, effectively banning its importation. Ministers will assess in March 2024 whether a transition period is necessary for previously ordered stone. However, they urged businesses and consumers to avoid new contracts. This decision follows a recommendation by Australia’s workplace safety watchdog to ban all engineered stone, regardless of crystalline silica content, to safeguard workers’ health.
The Safe Work Australia report revealed a substantial increase in silicosis and silica-related diseases among engineered stone workers. It stressed that there is no evidence indicating the safety of lower levels of crystalline silica for those working with engineered stone. Businesses like Bunnings and Ikea had already phased out engineered stone products in response to the report, and some states had previously banned dry-cutting of the stone.
Marie Boland, Safe Work Australia’s chief executive, emphasized that the prohibition would make workplaces safer and healthier, prioritizing workers’ well-being over industry costs. The Australian Council of Trade Unions praised the decision, stating that it would save lives and prioritized worker safety over corporate profit.
Law firm Maurice Blackburn, representing workers diagnosed with silicosis, welcomed the ban, comparing it to asbestos exposure and emphasizing that there is no safe level of workplace exposure to silica dust. The ministers’ communique outlined exceptions for the removal, repair, minor modification, or disposal of engineered stone installed before July 1, 2024, and for products with trace levels of silica under 1%. Safe Work Australia is tasked with drafting amendments to workplace health and safety regulations and developing a national framework for legacy engineered stone products.
Additionally, Safe Work Australia has been instructed to create a process for evaluating new products for possible exemptions, with these developments to be presented at the March ministerial meeting.
The ban on engineered stone is receiving widespread support from various stakeholders. Liam O’Brien, assistant secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, expressed gratitude to the ministers for prioritizing workers’ lives over corporate profits. He highlighted the dangers posed by engineered stone, emphasizing that it is a fashionable product that has proven lethal for workers. O’Brien questioned the need to jeopardize the lives of tradespeople for the sake of a trendy finish in kitchens when alternatives are readily available.
Law firm Maurice Blackburn, known for representing workers with silicosis and related autoimmune diseases, echoed the sentiment, asserting that the ban on engineered stone would save lives and protect countless individuals from the hazardous effects of silica dust. Jonathan Walsh, principal lawyer at Maurice Blackburn, drew a parallel with asbestos, underscoring that there is no safe level of workplace exposure to silica dust.
The exceptions outlined in the ministers’ communique, allowing for the removal, repair, or disposal of engineered stone installed before July 1, 2024, and for products with trace levels of silica under 1%, aim to address practical considerations during the transition. Safe Work Australia’s role in drafting amendments to workplace health and safety regulations and developing a framework for legacy engineered stone products reflects a comprehensive approach to ensuring a smooth implementation of the ban.
The decision to ban engineered stone aligns with broader efforts to prioritize occupational health and safety. The emphasis on protecting workers from the risks associated with silica dust exposure signals a commitment to creating safer work environments. As the implementation date approaches, stakeholders, including businesses and consumers, are urged to comply with the prohibition and refrain from engaging in new contracts involving engineered stone. The forthcoming customs prohibition on the importation of engineered stone by the federal government reinforces the national commitment to eradicating the risks associated with this material.
In conclusion, the ban on engineered stone in Australia represents a significant step toward safeguarding the well-being of workers and mitigating the health risks posed by silica dust. The unanimous decision of state and federal workplace ministers underscores the gravity of the issue and the collective commitment to creating safer workplaces across the country.