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Push for ‘complete’ ban on deadly product

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke supports a ban on engineered stone banned. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

All engineered stone in Australia must be banned, a major report has recommended, citing concerning links to an incurable disease that’s killing tradies.

Workplace health and safety ministers met on Friday to determine whether to release the findings from a Safe Work Australia report, after receiving the document in August.

In publicly releasing the report, federal minister Tony Burke said the government would now work with the states and territories on a “co-operative national response”, and would convene another meeting in the next two months to decide next steps.

The report was commissioned after engineered stone, a popular material often used for kitchen benches and bathrooms, was linked to a surge in disease among tradespeople.

The most common disease was incurable silicosis, caused by inhaling tiny particles of silica dust.

In its report, Safe Work Australia considered three options – prohibiting the use of all engineered stone; prohibiting the use of engineered stone containing more than 40 per cent crystalline silica; and a regulation system.

But ultimately, the report concluded a complete ban was the only option, given that even lower levels of crystalline silica posed serious risks to the health and safety of workers.

Safe Work Australia also noted regulators had failed to protect workers from the deadly disease.

“Continued work with engineered stone poses an unacceptable risk to workers,” the report said.

“The use of all engineered stone should be prohibited.”

Cells taken from the lungs of a patient with silicosis (notice the speck of silica dust shining brightly).
Cells taken from the lungs of a patient with silicosis (notice the speck of silica dust shining brightly).

The report noted engineered stone workers were not only at a higher risk of developing silicosis, but also experienced a faster disease progression and a higher chance of death from the disease.

Mr Burke said the final report was “powerful and compelling”.

“It shows very clearly why we need further action to protect workers from this deadly disease,” he said.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions welcomed the report, saying the recommendation for a blanket ban would “save lives”.

“We urge all governments to introduce it at the earliest opportunity,” Assistant Secretary Liam O’Brien said.

“Silicosis and silica-related diseases pose an unacceptable health risk to workers. This report shows that there is no type of engineered stone that is safe for workers.

“The report made clear that there is no other option than an outright ban on engineered stone. Keeping this deadly product legal means more workers getting health problems and more workers dying.

“We welcome the decision earlier this year of WHS Ministers to introduce stronger silica rules covering all work. However, this report makes clear that to truly protect the health and wellbeing of workers, we must ban this deadly fashion product once and for all.”

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke wants engineered stone banned. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Ahead of the report’s public release and Friday’s meeting, Mr Burke said the decision to ban the product was now with the states but confirmed he wanted to see it outlawed.

“I want as soon as possible for people to be safe when they go to work. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

“I don’t believe there’s any section of Australia that will look lightly at the reality of people losing their lives because they went to work.”

The silica dust from cutting the engineered stone benchtops can lead to the potentially deadly disease silicosis as well as lung cancer.

While he could not say when action would be taken, Mr Burke said the public would “not be disappointed” by the pace of action.

“I don’t get a sense from any jurisdiction that they’re looking to delay,” he said.

The CFMEU has vowed to ban its members from working with engineered stone products from July next year if federal and state governments do not act.

Last month, the national construction union wrote to Bunnings to urge it to immediately pull engineered stone benchtops from its product line-up.

“It is unconscionable for Bunnings to continue promoting and selling this killer product when there is no need to do so,” CFMEU boss Zach Smith wrote.

Mr Burke stressed if people had the product in their homes, there was no immediate risk, as the issue was either at installation, renovation or removal stages.

“We will be dealing with this, a legacy product, for decades to come,” he said.

Mr Burke said he would be surprised if the industry campaign against a full ban continued after the full report’s release.