Tradie, 34, given life sentence after silicosis diagnosis: 'No treatments'

Ben Harrison, 34, has slammed Bunnings for continuing to sell products linked to the incurable respiratory disease.

For over a decade Ben Harrison, 34, worked as a stonemason on the Gold Coast and had no idea of the risks associated with his trade.

"I just started getting real fatigue, real sick. I didn't know what was going on. I just put it down to asthma," the dad-of-three told Yahoo News Australia.

After moving back to his home state of Tasmania with his partner and three young sons, Ben received a phone call that changed his life. "My friends in Queensland, they called me saying one of my friends was sick and was about to die. They said I needed testing."

Left, Ben who has been diagnosed with Silicosis and his young son. Middle and right, Ben smiles with his three sons and partner.
Ben Harrison was unknowingly exposed to dangerous silica dust for years before he was diagnosed with silicosis. Source: Supplied

Australia's first known tradesman death to silicosis

Ben's friend and previous co-worker Anthony White had been diagnosed with silicosis — an incurable lung disease which is caused by inhaling unsafe levels of silica dust. The dangerous particles cause inflammation which lead to lung scarring, and overtime breathing is significantly impacted.

Sixteen months after his diagnosis, Anthony died from the disease. He became the country's first known tradie to die from silicosis after being exposed to silica dust at his workplace.

Ben was diagnosed with the same disease — one day before his 30th birthday. He was told it is terminal.

"At first I sort of didn't take it seriously, to be honest. I didn't think I had a chance in hell and having it. But then I was diagnosed, and I was in shock. After that was kind of a blur."

Ben lies on a hospital bed (left) and sits in hospital with his three sons (right).
Ben is determined to spend as much time with his three young sons Oscar (9), Chase (7) and Lewis (5). Source: Supplied

Unions demand immediate ban on silica stone worktops

Ben explained he had "no idea" of the dangers associated with silicon-based kitchen benchtops and was never provided with informative or preventative measures to protect him and his co-workers by previous employers.

"On a busy day we couldn't see each other it was that dusty," Ben recalls of his work cutting the benchtops.

A large number of benchtops fitted into Australian homes are made of silica stone and the National Construction Union are urging for the immediate ban of a silica-based products available at Bunnings after the bench tops were linked to silicosis.

"Bunnings is just profiting off death," Ben said. "They don't care about the consequences."

Bunnings has responded to the backlash and said most of their benchtops are "laminate or timber", however, the "engineered stone benchtops" they provide are pre-cut to size before arriving to a customer.

"[These benchtops are] supplied and installed by a specialist provider that holds an engineered stone licence and applies strict safety standards to protect production and installation teams in line with the requirements of their licence," Jen Tucker, Bunnings Director of Merchandise, told Yahoo News.

Yahoo News understands the Bunnings range of silica-based benchtops are not available to DIY or tradie customers, but instead available to order through their supply and install package.

Employers need to provide safe working environments, expert says

The onus of working with safe materials is placed on employers within the construction industry, yet many benchtops are made up of 97 percent silica.

"There's regulations around how you work with a product but not around the product coming in itself," Elizabeth Early, Lung Foundation Australia's Senior Manager for Occupational Lung Disease, told Yahoo News.

"It's something that the employer needs to implement, and then the trainee or the worker follows that. So you know, if the employer doesn't provide them with the proper backing to clean up after the material, then obviously, the worker can't do anything," she said.

Did you know? Since 2018, 1 in 4 stonemasons have been diagnosed with silicosis in Australia.
Source: Yahoo News Australia

"In terms of developing silicosis, if your disease progresses, then yes, you will unfortunately get more symptoms over time and if it is present there's currently no treatments to reverse it."

'Like having concrete in your lungs'

Those who suffer with silicosis say it's "like having concrete in your lungs" and the disease progressively hinders quality of life, with Ben no longer able to work. He had to "battle" to get any kind of compensation from his former employer.

"In the end, it took a year and a half for them to pay me... and they only paid me on the grounds that I had a mental health problem, not silicosis. They haven't taken responsibility or ownership of anyway for my terminal diagnosis."

Ben is determined to focus on his family and is set to marry his partner Cristale in the middle of October.

When asked about his future, Ben replied — "I don't know if I have much of one".

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