The Australian Council of Trade Unions, as well as the construction union CFMEU, has announced that they back a blanket ban on engineered stone products regardless of the concentration of silica contained within those products. The announcement will put them at odds with the business lobby over the current safety concerns regarding silica-containing products in the engineered stone space.
Both unions have backed a licensing scheme for the handling or removal of all existing benchtops, while the CFMEU has confirmed that they want all tradespeople handling the material to appear on a national register, which would also mean they are regularly screened for silicosis.
The current Labor government is considering a complete ban, although nothing has been announced from the discussion phase of the proposed legislation.
One of the largest suppliers of engineered stone, Cosentino, will launch an advertising blitz in an attempt to convince homeowners and tradespeople that their 40 per cent crystalline silica slabs are safe, despite evidence from the Cancer Council and occupational hygienists warning there is no evidence that any level of exposure, no matter how small, is safe.
The ACTU has declared that engineered stone benchtops are merely a “fashion item”, and not an essential building material.
ACTU assistant secretary, Liam O’Brien, said that the material is a “fashion product that is killing the workers who make it. With alternatives readily available, why are we risking the lives of tradies for a fashionable finish in our kitchens?”
Both unions support a full ban on the product until an independent and peer-reviewed body of research can determine the safe level of exposure for tradespeople.
According to the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists, engineered stone containing more than 10 per cent crystalline silica should be banned. They noted that such a move would ‘probably’ keep silica dust exposure levels under acceptable workplace standards, but they have backed a blanket ban, noting that even low-level silica-containing products were not “without risk”.
Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has given the national safety regulator, Safe Work, until August to explain the implications of a potential ban on engineered stone.
CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith warned Burke that if a ban was not implemented by mid-2024, CFMEU members would refuse to work with the product.
“I know some of the companies responsible for this scourge will try to use this process to water down regulation, but the government must hold firm,” he said.