Although many love stone benchtops in their bathrooms and kitchens, their building comes at a price; with hundreds of Australian workers now suffering from Silicosis. As a result, Queensland now suffers from a shortage of these skilled professionals.

Engineered stone and any building material containing crystalline silica can prove a health risk.

Silica is the primary ingredient in sand and is contained in clay products. Without protective equipment, those who cut, drill, grind, polish and demolish concrete, pavers, bricks, tiles, asphalt and other materials may face terminal health endangerments.

Although Queensland does impose restrictions on the dry cutting of engineered stone, and national workplace health and safety (WHS) guidelines are in place to reduce the risks of silica dust exposure, an audit of stonemason workshops conducted by Worksafe Queensland has uncovered situations in which workplace hazards were not being managed in an effective manner.

NSW, meanwhile, provides no oversight, regulation or enforcement of safety regulations for those labouring with engineered stone products.

Occupational physician Dr. Graham Edwards, a member of the national silicosis taskforce, says that silicosis cases soon are going to rank in the hundreds, with patients often dying within one to five years of diagnosis. And due to a lack of information available about NSW cases, the problem could get even worse. He blames a lapse in state and federal government monitoring and observance of established laws as being the reason for this.

The Victorian government has banned dry cutting of engineered stone; insisting that employers must guarantee that power tools are not used to cut, grind or abrasively polish engineered stone unless mechanisms for on-tool water suppression or dust extraction are present, along with respiratory protection.

During the 2018-19 fiscal year, WorkSafe Victoria got 55 claims for silica-related illnesses, with 15 workers perishing from the illness since 1985.

Victoria now offers free health screenings to the region’s 1400 stonemasons, also offering statewide education seminars.

As a result of the screenings, 232 stonemasons had started the health screening, with 73 from the 98 people who had completed the screenings referred for additional tests. Twenty of these labourers tested positive for silicosis – that’s one in five.

Silicosis is incurable, with the only hope coming in the form of a total lung transplant. Some who are diagnosed face a life expectancy of mere months.

Another, related problem is crystalline silica dust present on the worksite, which can affect workers not even handling the stone. Medical experts say that no exposure to crystalline silica dust is safe. This is why Victoria is campaigning to lower the Australian silica workplace exposure standard to 0.02 mg/m3 per an eight-hour day. Safe Work Australia, meanwhile, is reviewing its own exposure level recommendation of 0.1 mg/m3 during an equitable workday.

According to Safe Work Australia (SWA) and the Hierarchy of Controls, measures can be taken to make workplaces safer and healthier:

  • Substitute safer products, like timber benchtops and composite stone with a lower percentage of silica.
  • Isolate the risk by way of assigning specific areas for dust-producing tasks and executing these tasks using enclosures and automation.
  • Make use of helpful engineering controls like local exhaust ventilation, wet-cutting and dust-cutting techniques.
  • Apply administrative controls like clean maintenance policies, shift rotations and modified cutting sequences.
  • Supply and require the use of personal protective equipment and respiratory equipment.
  • Ensure the safety and stability of worksite scaffolding.
  • Provide all needed safeguards against illness, injury, and violence on worksites.
  • Every day and in every way, be a champion for workers.