Artificial stone has become commonplace in Australian kitchens and bathrooms since it became available on the marketplace 20 years ago as a cost-conscious alternative to marble or granite.

Yet the house renovation trend has aligned with a major escalation in rates of silicosis for construction workers.

Recent Icare data reflects 107 cases in NSW last fiscal year, up from 40 cases in 2018/19 and nine the period previous.

The National Dust Diseases Taskforce was formed in 2019 to cope with the problem. At its recent meeting, members concurred that a ban on artificial stone including high quantities of silica may be needed if alternate proposals, like a licensing regime, fail.

Yet the ban is sure to be controversial, already bringing opposition from the industry and the NSW government.

Their opinion has put them at odds with medical professionals, unions, the Cancer Council, workplace safety experts, lawyers and sufferers who argue that stricter measures are required to prevent worker death.

Silicosis is an incurable illness that prompts the scarring of the lungs and hurting the ability to breathe. It can be terminal, though one’s lifespan can be lengthened with a lung transplant.

Artificial stone – also called engineered stone – consists of up to 95 per cent silica, compared to less than 40 per cent silica in natural stone.

The fibres are inhaled by labourers during the cutting, sanding, polishing and grinding of the stone.

The National Dust Diseases Taskforce is due to release its final report in June. At its most recent meeting, members assessed the merits of a licensing regime.

Members believed that a product ban on engineered stone should stay an option for the future, especially if stronger regulations and enforcement activities don’t prevent new cases of silicosis … or attempts at licensing do not succeed, a communique from the meeting reported.

A coalition of organisations has penned a note to the taskforce to support a ban, such as unions, the Cancer Council, the Thoracic Society of Australia & New Zealand, Lung Foundation Australia, the Australian Institute of Health and Safety, the Public Health Association of Australia and the Australian and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine.

The coalition supports a tri-year, specific, staged approach to a ban on the importation and manufacturing of engineered stone with an elevated silica content, the letter reported.

It advised funding to aid the industry in the development of safer alternatives, and a licensing system.

Yet the NSW government said that effective risk controls could erase the danger for labourers while eliminating the need for a ban.

It referenced the recent banning of dry cutting in NSW, Queensland and Victoria, and with a lessening in the workplace safe level of silica dust and a freshened national code of practice.

The government believes that bans are thought to be a last resort, when sound risk controls are unavailable, the NSW government stated in a submission to the taskforce.

A compliance blitz had involved SafeWork NSW inspectors visiting each engineered stone fabrication site in the state, releasing 703 improvement notices and 51 prohibition notices.

The raising quantity of silicosis cases has been credited to a substantial boost in screening.

Industry figures have advised the taskforce that a ban would decimate the sector and cause many job losses, sans a sole alternative to fill consumer demand.

A supplier, Halifax Vogel Group, stated the existence of well-managed businesses lacking silicosis cases was evidence the product could be used safely.

A ban was not proportionate nor practical, it stated.

Yet, the Cancer Council believed workplace controls were not likely to be stringent at small businesses.

One stonemason suffering from silicosis stated that dry cutting still continues in Queensland in spite of the ban.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions related the urgent need to create industry-funded compensation regimes for sufferers.

Victorian victim Joanna McNeill has been informed it is too risky for her to come back to work at the quarry where she was afflicted with silicosis.

McNeill’s worker’s compensation payments will be discontinued after 130 weeks. She has seeking work between hospital stays and raising her two kids.

The 35-year-old says finding a job nearly infeasible with a silicosis diagnosis, and says that she is reaching rock bottom.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald