Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke will urge state ministers to bring forward a decision on whether to ban the domestic use of engineered stone as pressure mounts from federal Labor MPs, unions and health experts to stem the tide of workers contracting deadly silicosis.
At a meeting of state and territory workplace safety ministers on Tuesday, Burke will recommend all governments consider banning the manufactured stone slabs used for kitchen benchtops, while the Commonwealth explores blocking its importation.
“If a children’s toy was harming or killing kids, we’d take it off the shelves. How many thousands of workers have to die before we do something about silica products?” Burke said ahead of the meeting.
“We can’t keep delaying this. It’s time we considered a ban. I’m not willing to wait around the way people did with asbestos.”
A licensing scheme for businesses dealing with engineered stone is not among recommendations to be put to the meeting by Safe Work Australia, even though the body raised it with the industry as an option last year. The advisory body has recommended better regulation of silica dust across all industries and a new awareness program.
The former national dust diseases taskforce recommended a ban on engineered stone be considered by July 2024 if measurable improvements to safety had not been made in the industry, but Burke’s proposal would bring that forward by 17 months.
The details of any ban, such as prohibiting high-content crystalline silica products, are yet to be decided. If a majority of ministers agree with Burke, Safe Work will be given six months to come up with a solution before drafting suggested new rules by the end of the year.
Each state and territory enacts its own laws when it comes to workplace health and safety.
The proposal follows a joint investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and that revealed workers exposed to silica dust were battling the debilitating symptoms of the lung disease silicosis while state-based regulators failed to effectively police workplaces.
A Curtin University study, commissioned by the ACTU, estimates there are more than 275,000 workers, including miners, contractors, construction workers, stone masons and tunnellers exposed to high levels of crystalline silica, which is carcinogenic. The study predicts up to 103,000 workers will be diagnosed with silicosis.
The ACTU has called for an immediate ban on engineered stone, echoing calls from medical organisations, while major Spanish manufacturer Cosentino has called for a prohibition on products with more than 40 per cent crystalline silica.
Queensland Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace has been the only state or territory minister to publicly call for a ban on engineered stone imports in the lead-up to Tuesday’s meeting, however, several federal Labor MPs and senators, including three doctors, are pushing for its prohibition.
Victorian MP Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah, who last year broke down in parliament while speaking about the effects of silicosis on workers, backed a ban and called on consumers to think about the risks to workers.
“I think consumers are concerned about the provenance of their products. Sustainability is important, [and] we don’t like buying products that are made by children, so why would we want to buy a product that was killing young Australians?” Ananda-Rajah said.
She also described the lack of safety awareness among tradesmen as an indictment on operators and questioned whether rules regarding the stone slabs’ industrial use could be effectively enforced.
“It’s essentially a terminal diagnosis, like cancer, and it’s cutting people down in the prime of their lives,” she said.
Western Sydney Labor MP Dr Mike Freelander called for an immediate ban on engineered stone pending an investigation into its safe use.
“Either conditions are made to make it safe or, if not the case, then we should move to alternative products,” he said.
Labor senators Tony Sheldon and Jana Stewart said they wanted the dangerous product immediately banned, while Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care, Ged Kearney, said she strongly urged the meeting of ministers to consider a ban.
The member for Robertson on NSW’s Central Coast, Dr Gordon Reid, said he saw patients with lungs scarred from silica dust lying in bed, breathless.
“It looks like they’ve run a marathon lying down,” he said, also supporting a ban.
Caesarstone, the dominant supplier of manufactured stone benchtops in Australia, took out full-page advertisements in national newspapers arguing against a total ban on engineered stone, saying tunnelling and construction involving natural stone would also need to be banned to solve the silicosis issue.
Stone benchtop suppliers and fabricators are calling for national regulation to deal with industry “cowboys” but argue a ban on using engineered stone will affect thousands of businesses and will not deal with contamination from other sources such as natural stone, concrete or cement.
Construction industry lobby Master Builders Australia is consulting its members on an ultimatum put by the construction union that it would ban its members from using engineered stone by 2024 unless a nationwide ban was imposed.
MBA head Denita Wawn said the organisation wanted to ensure workplaces were free from high-risk silica hazards “and that any regulatory changes are effective and doing what they are designed to do”, calling for extensive consultation on the outcomes of the meeting.
“It’s important that there is a clear and consistent approach. There are lots of questions that could arise and it’s important that we know clearly exactly what the scope will be,” Wawn said.
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