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Engineered Stone – Australia Failing to Learn from History?

Engineered stone is a manufactured stone product and unlike the majority of natural stone products including marble, slate and granite, which range from as little as 2% and up to 45% silica content, engineered stone typically comprises a silica content of 90% or higher.

Engineered stone first entered the Australian market in the early 2000’s and since then has come to dominate the market, resulting in widespread popularity and increasingly high demand. This primarily arose on account of the lower cost and the increased workability of engineered stone products, relative to the naturally sourced options.

However, while easier to work with for stonemasons and those individuals employed in the industry, the consequences of the almost exclusive use of these engineered stone products, only came to the attention of the public in or about 2018.

Silicosis is an irreversible, debilitating and in many cases, terminal lung disease caused by the inhalation of respirable silica dust (RCSD), which is released through the fabrication of materials containing silica, the release of which is further intensified through the use of power tools.

Silicosis is not a new disease and is considered an ancient and highly recognised disease in both literature and medical circles, occurring throughout history in many industries and occupations. In contrast, the silicosis outbreak that arose in South-East Queensland in 2018 and is still unfolding to this day, is both unique and ground-breaking.

While silicosis was traditionally a disease contracted over decades of exposure to RCSD, to which many would understandably draw comparisons to the highly recognised dust-related lung conditions resulting from asbestos exposure. This new wave of silicosis, termed by some as ‘accelerated silicosis’ or ‘engineered stone silicosis’, arises from exposure in some cases, of only a few years, the intensive cumulative exposure from which had already caused and continues to cause, irreversible and debilitating lung damage.

This led many to question how such a product was even legal, let alone so abundant in the industry, particularly in a country such as Australia. It is also important to note that engineered stone is currently not produced or manufactured in Australia, 100% of the products used are imported.

In July 2019 the National Dust Disease Taskforce was established and while an interim advice was provided by the taskforce in December 2019, as a result of the global impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the final report was not published until recently in June 2021.

The taskforce’s final report is accessible via –$File/NDDT-Final-Report-June-2021.pdf

While this report provides a range of recommendations; ranging from strengthening workplace health and safety measures, to developing national education and guidance programs, to increasing support to affected workers, the recommendation that demands primary attention is:

“Commencing the processes required to implement a full ban on the importation of some or all engineered stone products if, by July 2024”

The Taskforce notes that it was mindful of “the terrible history and legacy of asbestos in Australia”, during its lengthy consideration of the submissions and consultations provided by a wide range of stakeholders.

One of the essential points of consideration for the taskforce was whether engineered stone can ever be manipulated and worked safely. On the current collective understanding, this likelihood appears more and more remote, with the taskforce including that despite widespread overhaul of the industry and workplace health and safety policies:-

“Evidence indicates preventative measures are not effectively protecting those working with engineered stone from silicosis and silica-associated diseases”

The taskforce notes that while “silicosis is an entirely preventable disease. …. Nearly one in four workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica dust from engineered stone before 2018, have been diagnosed with silicosis”.

Accordingly, the debate continues. If these engineered stone products have led to the death of Australians and will lead to the likely future death of even more Australians and is now so widely recognised as a highly hazardous product, how does it remain legal?

Are we simply repeating the mistakes of the past? Did we fail to learn from the history of asbestos? Despite the taskforce confirming they were mindful of these prior failings, the proposed ban under consideration would not take effect for almost another three (3) years.

How many more Australian workers, their families and their friends will have to be affected by silicosis and other silica-related disease, before decisive action is taken?

Many eyes are now on this matter and the outcome of Australia’s reaction to the taskforce’s report will surely be a point of extreme contention, which ever route is ultimately taken.

Charlton is an Associate at our Gold Coast office and holds degrees in Business and Law from Griffith University.
Sean is proud to be a lawyer for everyday people no matter what their issue. He has practised in compensation law for all his legal career and he has a superb track record of achieving outstanding results for his clients.

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