New calls for silicosis ban as CFMEU threatens to take action

New calls for silicosis ban as CFMEU threatens to take action

The Australian government is facing further calls for a ban on engineered stone products, as the CFMEU announced that if the government refused to act on a nationwide ban, the union would prohibit members from handling the material. 

The new national secretary for the CFMEU, Zach Smith, explained the severity of the lengths the union is willing to go to mirror the severity of the risk to workers. 

“This product is killing workers and the reality is Australian workers will keep dying unless we ban engineered stone,” he said.

Engineered stone is a durable and widely available option for kitchen benchtops, but it is made of manufactured materials containing high levels of crushed silica crystals. The substance, when cut, ground or polished, produces silica dust which poses a significant risk to workers’ health. 

The ABC spoke to one tradesman who has been working with the material for almost two decades – he isn’t yet forty and has silicosis, which he described as “scarring of the lungs… you’re just suffocating slowly.”

He believes that engineered stone products should be banned: “This is a preventable illness and we need to make sure that it does not continue to happen,” he said.

In a report released last year by the government’s National Dust Disease Taskforce, close to one in four workers who have been exposed to silica dust by way of handling engineered stone products have been diagnosed with silicosis.

The report highlighted that the existing workplace health and safety standards in Australia had not worked to protect stonemasons appropriately, and the task force also called for further safety measures to be implemented – but stopped short of calling for a product ban. 

Mr Smith explained that there is no safe level of exposure to silica dust and that he was personally aware of workplaces where best practices had been followed to manage the risk of exposure, but cases of silicosis had arisen anyway. 

The president of the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists, Kate Cole, believes that the risk of exposure to silica is comparable to asbestos and also backed calls for a ban on high-silica stone products. 

“Every day or every year we delay this decision, we just have more workers that are being exposed and unfortunately are likely to contract these debilitating an incurable diseases,” she said.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, Minister Tony Burke has intentions to discuss silicosis at a national meeting of state work health and safety ministers early next year. 

“The government will continue to work with unions to address health issues that arise from exposure to silica dust,” they said.

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