Unions heap pressure over 'asbestosis of the 2020s'
Admin worker Joanna McNeill felt healthy when she went for a routine medical check before finishing maternity leave, so it came as a huge shock when she was diagnosed with a deadly and incurable disease.
The mother-of-two has silicosis, a lung condition so dangerous it's been likened to asbestosis.
She worked in a portable office at a quarry for over four years and breathed in enough silica dust for it to wreak havoc on her body.
Her life is now a constant battle against pain and illness.
"It's definitely really hard being a mum of two girls," Ms McNeill said wiping away tears.
"I want to be there for them, because I don't know what my future holds."
Ms McNeill is one of an estimated 600,000 workers exposed to silica dust generated through mining, construction, building and manufacturing.
Kitchen benchtops made from engineered stone are particularly dangerous, with about one in four stonemasons who work with them developing silicosis.
It remains popular as it is cheaper than natural stone or other alternatives like timber or porcelain, even though diagnosed cases of silicosis increased over the last decade.
State, territory and federal ministers with the power to stop workers from interacting with engineered stone will next week discuss tougher regulations or a potential ban.
"We want a coordinated national response to this issue," Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said.
"I have met with injured workers. It's clear we need to do more - urgently."
Queensland has the toughest regulations on working with engineered stone and most states have banned dry cutting.
The NSW and Victorian governments are open to changing laws but unions say anything short of it being outlawed is not good enough.
The Construction Forestry Maritime Mining Energy Union has threatened to ban members from working with it by mid next year unless all imports and manufacturing ends.
"What we don't want to see happen is we ban importation and the manufacturing sector comes up overnight," union official Zach Smith told reporters in Melbourne on Monday.
"Here in Australia, we want to eradicate this product."
Asbestos was banned 70 years after the dangers of the material became known and Mr Smith labelled silica dust "the asbestos of the 2020s."
Occupational hygienist Kate Cole said there was no evidence the material can be worked on safely despite mitigation measures like masks.
"The stonemasonry sector has a huge amount of issues with non compliance," she said.
Occupational and Environment Physician Dr Warren Harrex said cases of silicosis jumped in the past 10 years and called for mandatory air quality monitoring in dusty workplaces
"Dust exposure in workers may not be evident until retirement, with chronic obstructive lung disease contributing to a burden on public health expenditure," he said.
Stonemason Kyle Goodwin was diagnosed with silicosis at just 33 after years of cutting engineered stone benchtops.
He is the face of a new advertising blitz by unions as they ramp up the push to ban engineered stone.
"Unfortunately myself and my friends have been diagnosed and we were essentially the guinea pigs for this product," he said.
"Don't let mine or their deaths be in vain, let's make a change for the better."