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Putting lives before profits – what the ban of engineered stone means and what else needs to be done

Introduction by Croakey: Australia is the first country to ban the use, supply and manufacture of all engineered stone, known to cause silicosis and other silica-related diseases.

The decision comes after strong advocacy from unions, public health advocates and people who have developed silicosis after working with engineered stone.

Public Health Association of Australia CEO Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin told SBS News the ban is welcome but more needs to be done to protect workers.

“Engineered stone is the most obvious and clear example of a dangerous product. There are others. Perhaps less immediate in their impact, perhaps less potent, but still unfairly stealing the good health of honest, hard-working people in Australia,” he said.

Similar sentiments are shared by Elizabeth Early and Paige Preston at the Lung Foundation Australia, who write below that silica dust exposure, as well as affecting stonemasons, is a risk for other occupations including mining and quarrying, construction, tunnelling and manufacturing.


Elizabeth Early and Paige Preston write:

A landmark decision was made by Workplace Relations and Work Health and Safety (WHS) Ministers from across Australia last week to prohibit the use of engineered stone in an effort to prevent silicosis and other silica-related diseases.

This follows significant advocacy efforts and recommendations including by Safe Work Australia, the National Dust Disease Taskforce and in the draft National Silicosis Prevention Strategy 2023-2028 and accompanying National Action Plan (NSPS).

At a meeting on 13 December, the Ministers agreed to prohibit the use, supply and manufacture of all engineered stone from 1 July 2024. This sees Australia become the first country in the world to announce a ban on engineered stone and is akin to the ban on asbestos, which came into effect in Australia 20 years ago to protect workers.

Despite growing understanding of the significant health harms, and many calls for action on engineered stone, the industry remains opposed. Their opposition was based on the notion that industry can self-regulate and further, and that their product is not harmful when the correct safety procedures are followed upon fabrication and installation.

Kitchen benchtop manufacturer Caesarstone said in an email to their customers and an online statement the day after the announcement to ban engineered stone, “It is in the fabrication process when stonemasons, if not following correct procedures, can be exposed to fine crystalline silica particles.”

Such statements place blame back onto endangered workers without acknowledging the unique harm posed by engineered stone as highlighted by Safe Work Australia and reported around the world.

In the lead up to the decision, organisations like Bunnings, Ikea and Mitre 10, as well as state and territory governments and unions like CFMEU, announced their commitment to ceasing the use of the product regardless of potential government action.

Impact of silicosis

Silicosis is an occupational lung disease caused by breathing in small particles of silica dust. Inhaling this dust causes inflammation, which over time, leads to scarring of the lung tissue. This causes stiffening of the lungs, which can make it difficult to breathe.

Silicosis is entirely preventable yet causes permanent disability and premature death. People living with silicosis describe it as like “having concrete in your lungs”. Beyond the physical health impacts are a range of psychosocial and financial implications.

Data is limited across Australia – which the recently passed National Occupational Respiratory Disease Registry aims to rectify – and the full scale and impact of silicosis is unknown. What we do know is that rates of silicosis and silica-related diseases have risen substantially in recent years, with a disproportionate number of diagnoses in engineered stone workers.

Currently, more than one in four stonemasons are impacted by silicosis and other silica dust-related diseases. Devastatingly, most of these diagnoses are in young men in the prime of their working and family lives.

Kylie Goodwin, a former stonemason who has fought tirelessly to make the ban a reality, was just 33 when he was diagnosed with silicosis. Goodwin told Yahoo News: “Here we are in our 30s, and some guys in their 20s, battling something that we didn’t need to actually be battling — we just went to work and got given a death sentence”.

More to be done

For the stonemasons across Australia, there is currently a lack of clarity around “what next”. Lung Foundation Australia recommends that governments support re-tool and re-train impacted workers to transition into other industries and professions.

The WHS Ministers’ Communique indicates that Ministers will meet again in March 2024 to clarify the finer details of the ban. It is clear that a whole of systems approach is needed given the range of complexities associated with the ban – ranging from those who had planned to have it installed in their homes to those who may have been planning renovations.

While the engineered stone ban is a monumental, life-saving decision that is welcomed by many, almost 600,000 Australians working in other high-risk industries, including mining and quarrying, construction, tunnelling and manufacturing are occupationally exposed to silica dust. It is estimated that without proper intervention, up to 10,000 lung cancer cases and between 80,000 – 100,000 silicosis cases will arise within the next 10 years.

It is fair to say that the silicosis epidemic is a direct result of the failures of our current work health and safety systems. The Hierarchy of Controls, which is a system used to control exposure to hazards in the workplace, is the most effective way to reduce the risk of silicosis, illness and injury.

Source: Lung Foundation Australia, Silica dust in the construction industry booklet

Tireless advocacy

Without the brave stories and tireless advocacy efforts of many Australians affected by this condition, thousands more lives could have been lost unnecessarily.

The unions, public health advocates, patients, researchers, health professionals, and peaks should be commended for their advocacy.

Similarly, the stories of lived experience – including Ben and Cristale who recently shared their story with Lung Foundation Australia – highlight just how much of an impact this disease can have on a person’s entire life.

In the wake of this significant decision, it is important to keep their story and that of so many others at the forefront of our minds. The ban will impact stonemasons and businesses but, after years of careful deliberation and analysis, it has been made clear that these products cannot be used safely. With the right re-tooling and re-training, this decision could very well save their lives.

This decision has been years in the making, and it would not have been achieved without the continued efforts and commitment of so many individuals and organisations who have fought tirelessly to protect the lives of our workers.

It is essential we remember the many workers and their families who have been impacted by this devastating and incurable condition. The imminent ban will save lives and sets an international precedent for the value of human lives over profits.

For those living with silicosis, including their family members and caregivers, support is available via Lung Foundation Australia’s nurse, social worker and peer support services.

***Note, Caesarstone has been approached for comment but not yet responded.

About the authors

Elizabeth Early is the Senior Manager of Occupational Lung Disease and Priority Populations Programs at Lung Foundation Australia.

Paige Preston is General Manager, Policy, Advocacy and Prevention at Lung Foundation Australia, and an Adjunct Lecturer at The University of Queensland.


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