The latest industry insights into compensation law.

Shifting Sands in Occupational Exposure Standards

The national workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica is set to be halved from 0.1 mg/m3 to 0.05 mg/m3 and will take effect in Queensland from 1 July 2020.

Occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica has been a topic of immense media and public scrutiny over the past 18 months following the unprecedented outbreak of stonemasons across the country being diagnosed with silicosis, an incurable (and often progressive) lung condition caused by the inhalation of silica dust.

In particular, there has been an alarming spike of stonemasons in South-East Queensland who have been diagnosed with silicosis given the area is highly concentrated with operations fabricating stone benchtops.

As of April 2020, WorkCover Queensland completed the health screening of over 1,040 stonemasons which identified 174 workers diagnosed with silicosis and 30 of these workers suffering from progressive massive fibrosis (an advanced form of the condition).

To put these figures into context, between 1992 and 2004, there were a total of six (6) workers’ compensation claims lodged in Queensland.

It is believed the rise in workers diagnosed with silicosis is principally due to the emergence and popularity of engineered stone products. Engineered stone is a manufactured product which contains a very high silica content, sometimes up to 95%. In contrast, natural stones such as marble, limestone and granite typically have a silica content of between 2% and 45%. Engineered stone is also a cheaper alternative to natural stone which has caused it to significantly increase in popularity over the past decade in Australia.

Although many claim the introduction of engineered stone has contributed to the increasing prevalence of silicosis within the stone benchtop industry, it is also clear that there has been a lack of effective occupational exposure controls within the industry.

Following the emergence of silicosis cases in South-East Queensland and the unfortunate passing of a local Gold Coast stonemason in March 2019, the industry has been forced into a rapid assessment of its procedures and protocols.

This has identified a wide array of exposure controls that should be implemented and maintained by companies fabricating stone benchtops. These controls and measures can be distilled into four (4) primary subclasses:

  1.  Controlling the dust: a. Water suppression; b. On-tool extraction; c. Mechanical and natural ventilation; d. Containment; and e. Regular and effective cleaning.
  2.  Respiratory Protection: a. Selecting appropriate respirators for the environmental contaminants.
  3. Monitoring the Environment: a. Performing workplace testing of airborne contaminate levels.
  4. Monitoring Employee Health: a. Screening at the commencement and conclusion of employment, as well as periodic screenings and health monitoring of employees.

The amended national silica exposure standard will predominately impact the third subclass outlined above and by extension will also place greater importance on the first. However, it remains to be seen how successful these companies will be with implementing the necessary changes and controls required to adhere to the new silica exposure standard.

Many questions also remain about whether it is possible to safely work with engineered stone given its composition and high silica content with ongoing debate about whether the product should simply be banned like other dangerous building materials such as asbestos. This has been highlighted by reports that Caesarstone, one of Australia’s largest engineered stone suppliers, has been refused public liability insurance coverage due to the risks associated with its product.

It appears the recent scrutiny of the stone benchtop industry has had the positive effect of ensuring the public and the workforce are now more informed than ever. However, more needs to be done to ensure compliance with the necessary controls and measures required to protect these workers and to hold the employers and manufacturers/importers to account, if these necessary steps are not taken.

Charlton is an Associate at our Gold Coast office and holds degrees in Business and Law from Griffith University.
Senior Associate
Zach has represented many clients throughout Queensland, interstate and overseas and has successfully negotiated many significant and complex cases and has extensive experience in various types of compensation claims.

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