States and territories agree to consider banning engineered stone

States and territories have agreed to consider banning engineered stone to prevent more Australian stonemasons and tradespeople from contracting deadly silicosis following a meeting led by Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke on Tuesday.

The unanimous decision was made after Burke urged his state counterparts to bring forward a decision on whether to ban the domestic use of the dangerous product used for kitchen benchtops as pressure mounts from federal Labor MPs, unions and health experts to act.

Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke: “I wish governments had started this process sooner.” 

Alex Ellinghausen

“I’m pleased to say we have ended up with a unanimous decision across every state, territory and [the] Commonwealth,” Burke said after the meeting.

“We have now tasked Safe Work Australia to do the work to scope out what regulation is required for all workplaces where you deal with silica dust and to also scope out specifically … what a ban would look like.

“I wish governments had started this process sooner.”

Burke had earlier said he was not willing to wait until a previously issued deadline of July 2024 to begin discussing banning high-silica content stone products, which is behind a spike in workers suffering lung disease.

The former national dust diseases taskforce set the 2024 deadline if measurable improvements to safety had not been made in the industry. Burke’s proposal brought that forward by 17 months.

The commitment followed a joint investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and that revealed workers exposed to silica dust were battling the debilitating symptoms of silicosis while state-based regulators failed to effectively police workplaces.

Speaking to ABC’s on Tuesday morning, Burke said once Safe Work Australia had completed its work, each state and territory parliament would have to pass their own laws to enact a ban, a process that would likely take 12 months.

“The moment you get to this point [deciding to ban the products], there’s still further delays.”

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.

Incoming CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith said earlier on Tuesday his union’s members would refuse to work with the high-silica product to avoid risks to their safety if a ban was not implemented by mid-2024.

“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.

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.

More to come

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