A potential nationwide move to ban the deadly engineered stone popular in kitchen benchtops will take at least a year, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke says, as he urges state and territory ministers to consider prohibiting the substance at a meeting on Tuesday.
Speaking to ABC’s on Tuesday morning, Burke said even if a ban was agreed to at the meeting, national advisory body Safe Work Australia would have to scope what a ban would look like, then each state and territory parliament would have to pass their own laws to enact it.
“It’s going to take a good 12 months or more,” Burke said, adding the lag in decision-making was a key reason he wanted to bring consideration of a ban on engineered stone forward. National discussions on a ban were originally slated to take place from July 2024.
“The moment you get to this point, there’s still further delays.”
The former national dust diseases taskforce issued the 2024 deadline if measurable improvements to safety had not been made in the industry. Burke’s proposal would bring that forward by 17 months.
Speaking to media in Parliament House, incoming CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith said if a ban was not implemented by mid-2024, his union’s members would refuse to work with the high-silica product from next July to avoid risks to their safety.
“If the government hasn’t implemented a ban on the importation and manufacture of engineered stone by 1 July 2024, our union will act, and we will implement our own workplace ban. I can be really clear on that point,” he said.
Smith also encouraged Burke to use stronger language in pursuing a ban with state and territory ministers after the latter recommended each jurisdiction merely consider a ban.
“We would encourage stronger language, we think this issue is an issue of life and death. We are seeing workers die now,” Smith said. “We think action is absolutely imperative, and it’s necessary now.”
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.
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.
Federal Labor MPs, unions and health experts are calling for an immediate ban on the engineered stone products, many of which contain up to 95 per cent crystalline silica, which can lead to stonemasons and other tradesmen contracting silicosis, a deadly, irreversible lung disease.
“That would be a fantastic outcome if they walk out of today’s meeting and say ‘we’re going to ban [it] straight away’,” Smith said.
“It’s not integral to the building process.”
Stone benchtop suppliers and fabricators are calling for tighter national regulations 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.
Burke said wet cutting – using water to suppress the silica dust in the product – was used on the factory floor, but it was rarer to see safe practices when the benchtops were being further shaped to fit during home installations.
“If you’re wanting to make sure that we’ve got a situation where we’re not putting workers’ lives at risk, then you do have to consider whether across the whole lifecycle of those products, whether or not they’re safe enough that a regulatory regime will do the job,” he said.
“Certainly, at the moment, the number of Australians with silicosis keeps rising. This is part of the cause. If we could easily regulate it, then you wouldn’t be considering a ban at all.”
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