By Vincent So, Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) CEO

Engineered stone (a.k.a. quartz or artificial stone) is a popular material widely used for stone benchtops in kitchens and bathrooms. However, recently this has come under scrutiny due to its health risks that it poses for workers, with the Federal Government considering a ban of the material.

The high levels of crystalline silica found in engineered stone pose a severe threat to the health and well-being of workers who handle it.

These invisible silica dust particles are 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, so can travel deeply into your lungs where they wreak havoc – causing the lung disease called silicosis.

Recently, there has been an explosion of cases of silicosis in tradies, especially in stone benchtop workers. Silicosis is also a risk when working in any workplace which creates silica dust, such as excavation, mining, quarrying and mineral processing, tunnelling, construction, concrete or masonry, and pottery making, just to name a few.

Silicosis is the oldest occupational lung disease on record and is entirely preventable. More than 275,000 Australians are now at risk of cancer and lung disorders caused by silica exposure – that is, more than the entire population of Hobart and Launceston combined.

Curtin University researchers have shown that workers in trades have a 37 per cent risk of developing silicosis in later life. Monash University research published in June 2023 found that 28 per cent of Victorian stone benchtop workers had silicosis, and 21 per cent had advanced silicosis.

In the interests of protecting lives and ensuring workplace safety, a ban on engineered stone is a critical step towards a healthier and safer environment for all.

What is engineered stone?

Engineered stone is produced by compressing ground stone such as crystalline silica and combined with resins. The crystalline silica content in stone bench tops can vary widely depending on the type of stone used.

Engineered stone benchtops can contain up to 95 per cent crystalline silica. Natural stone such as granite may contain from 20 to 60 per cent. It is the respirable crystalline silica released into the air which causes silicosis – no airborne silica dust, no silicosis.

Silica dust: a silent killer

Silica dust, generated during the fabrication and installation processes using engineered stone, poses a grave danger to workers.

Silicosis is a debilitating and potentially fatal lung disease. Silicosis is irreversible, and its effects can be devastating, robbing workers of their lives and cutting shorttheir careers.

Workplace health at stake

The importance of prioritising workplace health and safety cannot be overstated. While measures such as dust control and personal protective equipment can help mitigate risks, they are not foolproof.

Despite reduction in dust levels and guidelines and regulations having been revised, instances of non-compliance or inadequate implementation are still common, leaving workers vulnerable to the dangers of silica dust exposure. A ban on engineered stone would eliminate this risk altogether in exposed workers, ensuring the highest level of protection for these workers.

Preventing silent suffering

Silicosis is silently progressive, usually only becoming noticed years after exposure to silica dust. Workers may not realise the severity of their condition until it is too late. At TSANZ, we strongly advocate for a ban on engineered stone in Australia. By banning engineered stone, we have an opportunity to prevent this silent suffering and protect the lives and livelihoods of many workers who are at risk.

Our members are the clinicians who diagnose and treat tradies with silicosis, and they tell us that this is the first and most important step to protect the workforce. Our tradespeople are getting sick, are forced out of employment, and die – for going to work every day to provide for themselves and their families, and that is simply not acceptable to us.

A moral and ethical responsibility

As a society, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to prioritise human lives over profits. While engineered stone has gained popularity for its aesthetic appeal and durability, the toll it takes on the health of workers cannot be ignored.

Can your conscience cope knowing your faux stone benchtop contributed to a child or spouse losing their parent or partner? By implementing a ban, we, as a society, send a strong message that the well-being of individuals should never be compromised in the pursuit of commercial gains or aesthetic appeal.

Promoting safer alternatives

Advocating for a ban on engineered stone does not mean sacrificing progress or design options. It presents an opportunity to promote the adoption of safer alternatives that do not pose the same health risks. The development and utilisation of materials which do not pose a risk of lung disease is possible and can create a safer work environment without compromising industry growth or aesthetic choices for consumers.

One of our trusted colleagues, Kate Cole, who is a certified Australian occupational hygienist, researcher, and thought leader in this area, has some great educational resources. Some examples of alternative materials she recommends include stainless steel, timber, and laminate. Stainless steel and timber (depending on the type) are highly durable materials, while laminate is a great low-budget option for homeowners who like to upgrade their kitchen as trends change.

Cost to the nation

Silicosis often affects individuals in their prime working and tax paying years, thus creating economic dependency for workers who may have to rely on e.g., unemployment or disability benefits.

The treatment and management of silicosis requires specialised medical care, including diagnostic tests, medications, and sometimes lung transplantation. These expenses contribute to the overall healthcare burden and can strain healthcare systems. Besides being good public policy, it is in the Federal Government’s financial interest to address this issue head on and prevent rather than treat the disease.

Tradies who receive a silicosis diagnosis should consult with their employer and lawyer as soon as possible. It’s important that workers get the support and compensation they need and are entitled to, but workers’ compensation processes need to be followed. We encourage any person who is concerned that they are suffering from a respiratory condition and who interacts with materials containing silica to have conversations with both their employer and legal representation as early on as they can.

Taking decisive action

Banning engineered stone is an essential step to protect the lives and health of workers who handle this material. Silicosis is a completely preventable disease and should not be occurring in the 21st century. By taking decisive action, we can ensure that no worker suffers these devastating effects.

By advocating for a ban, we affirm our commitment to workplace health and safety, responsible decision-making, and the well-being of our workforce and their families. Let us prioritise human lives above all else and work towards creating a safer and healthier future for all workers.

Vincent So is CEO of The Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ). TSANZ is the only health peak body representing a range of professions (medical specialists, scientists, researchers, academics, nurses, physiotherapists, students, and others) across various disciplines within the respiratory/sleep medicine field in Australia and New Zealand.

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