Stone Industry Shakeup: The Inside Scoop on the Ban of Engineered Stone in Australia

Australia bans engineered stone effective July 1, 2024, in a groundbreaking move to address severe health risks such as silicosis among workers. This decision, set by the Australian government, underscores a major shift in how materials are used and regulated within the construction and manufacturing industries. As the first country in the world to implement such a comprehensive prohibition, Australia sets a global precedent that could inspire similar actions worldwide, highlighting the global significance of this stance on workplace health and safety in the stone industry.

The engineered stone ban is the culmination of a years-long campaign by doctors, trade unions, and workers to eliminate the use of this hazardous material. Despite the industry’s concerns over the financial implications, the Australian government’s decision underscores a prioritization of worker health and safety above all. Notably, some companies, including Caesarstone, have committed to supplying alternative products to the Australian market, demonstrating a willingness to adapt to safer practices.

This bold legislative move by Australia not only underscores the country’s commitment to workplace safety but also sets a precedent for other nations to follow. As the stone industry grapples with this significant change, the global community watches closely to see how this ban might inspire similar actions worldwide, potentially leading to a safer and healthier environment for workers everywhere​​​​​​.

In this blog, let us explore the various dimensions of this critical issue. We’ll delve into the health risks associated with silicosis, understand the perspectives of those affected by the potential ban, and examine the regulatory landscape surrounding engineered stone

Key Takeaways

  • Australia sets a global precedent by being the first country to announce a ban on engineered stone, effective July 1, 2024, addressing severe health risks such as silicosis.

  • The ban reflects Australia’s commitment to prioritizing worker safety over industry concerns, amid alarming health impacts of silica dust exposure on workers.

  • Industry response includes adaptations to safer practices, with companies like Caesarstone committed to supplying alternative, safer products to the Australian market.

  • This legislative move could inspire international actions, highlighting the global significance of Australia’s stance on workplace health and safety in the stone industry.

  • Comprehensive studies and reports underpin the decision, pointing to a high prevalence of silicosis among workers in the stone benchtop industry, and signaling a need for industry-wide changes to protect workers.

What is Engineered Stone?

Engineered Stone

Image Source: zameen.com

Engineered stone, commonly used for kitchen benchtops, has recently become a focal point of health concerns, particularly due to its association with silicosis, a serious lung disease. This material, often preferred over natural marble for its durability and variety of designs, is made from quartz crystals bound together with resin. Despite its advantages in aesthetics and scratch resistance, engineered stone has been found to pose significant health risks to workers involved in its cutting and finishing.

Is Silicosis a Pressing Issue?

Silicosis, the primary health concern linked to engineered stone, is a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling fine dust containing silica (respirable crystalline silica, or RCS). This leads to lung scarring and can have debilitating and sometimes fatal consequences. This disease can be fatal, and exposure to silica dust also increases the risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. Once engineered stone is installed, however, it does not pose any health risks to the inhabitants of the space. For workers cutting and shaping the stone, the risks can be significant.

The ban is primarily driven by concerns over silicosis risks associated with the manufacture of products containing crystalline silica. Stone manufacturing companies, however, has stated that it has been providing clear warnings about the risks of silicosis and safe handling procedures since the 1990s.

The Heart of the Engineered Stone Ban Controversy

Ken Parker

Ken Parker, an engineered stone cutter, undergoes a lung function test after acquiring silicosis
Image Source: smh.com.au

Many engineered stone manufacturing companies argue that a total engineered stone ban is unnecessary and excessive and may not effectively solve the silicosis issue. Instead, they propose a ban on manufactured stone with a crystalline silica concentration above 40 percent, suggesting that this action could be more targeted and effective in reducing risks to workers.

Health Implications

Health experts and industry regulators, however, have expressed concerns about the safety of engineered stone. Graeme Edwards, a former member of the national dust diseases taskforce and a Royal College of Physicians fellow, states that engineered stone is associated with a much higher risk than other crystalline silica-containing products. Edwards and others argue that the industry and regulators have failed to protect workers using engineered stone, indicating a need for stricter regulation or a ban.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and other unions have called for a blanket ban on engineered stone, citing that there is no safe level of exposure to the dust generated from cutting the material. The final decision on the ban and its scope is yet to be made, with Safe Work Australia’s report on the matter expected to play a crucial role in informing the decision.

Related Studies

Australian engineered stone

Image Source: dezeen.com

This call is backed by studies that estimate a significant number of workers are at risk of silicosis due to exposure to crystalline silica. 

1. A comprehensive study by Monash University found an alarmingly high prevalence of silicosis among workers in stone industry jobs in Australia. This study highlighted that the current safety measures and screening tests fail to adequately diagnose and protect workers from the disease.. 

2. One study, as reported by the CDC, highlighted that even though overall silicosis deaths decreased from 164 in 2001 to 101 in 2010 in the United States, deaths continued to occur among young individuals, with 28 deaths reported among persons aged 15–44 years during this period. Overexposure to respirable crystalline silica has been the identified cause.

3. Another study posted by the National Library of Medicine, conducted among artificial stone workers in Spain, emphasized the occupational risk factors contributing to the onset of silicosis. This study underlined the dangers associated with activities that involve inhaling silica compact dust, specifically in the context of artificial stone workers.

Technological Innovations Post-Silica Ban

The ban on engineered stone has spurred significant technological innovations aimed at ensuring safer working conditions and maintaining industry productivity. Key innovations include:

  • Alternative Materials: Companies are developing new materials with lower silica content or silica-free options. These alternatives maintain the aesthetic and functional qualities of engineered stone without the associated health risks.

  • Advanced Dust Control Technologies: Improved ventilation systems and innovative dust suppression techniques are being implemented in manufacturing and fabrication processes to reduce silica dust exposure.

  • Automated Cutting and Finishing: Automation in cutting and finishing processes minimizes human exposure to silica dust. Robotic systems can handle these tasks more efficiently and safely.

  • Industry 4.0 Integration: Utilizing Industry 4.0 technologies, such as IoT-enabled monitoring systems, can enhance safety protocols by providing real-time data on dust levels and ensuring compliance with safety standards.

  • 3D Printing: The adoption of 3D printing technology allows for the production of complex stone designs without the traditional cutting and finishing processes, significantly reducing the exposure to silica dust.

  • Protective Gear Enhancements: Advances in personal protective equipment (PPE) provide better filtration and respiratory protection for workers handling stone materials.

  • Training and Education Programs: Enhanced training programs focus on best practices for handling materials and using protective gear, ensuring workers are well-informed about safety measures

Economic Impact on the Ban

Business groups, including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, have raised concerns about the potential economic impact of a blanket ban on engineered stone. They argue that such a ban could lead to economic repercussions, affecting industries and businesses reliant on engineered stone. The fear is that a blanket ban might shift perceptions toward labeling materials as ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ without adequate consideration of their relative risks and benefits​​.

Health Impact on Workers

According to modeling by Curtin University, approximately 10,000 workers in Australia across various sectors are predicted to develop lung cancer, and up to 103,000 could be diagnosed with silicosis due to current exposure to silica dust at work.

The health risks associated with engineered stone, particularly silicosis, have been a major concern for workers’ safety. Unions and health organizations such as the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand have strongly advocated for a ban on engineered stone, highlighting the high percentage of crystalline silica in these materials (up to 95%) and its link to the debilitating lung disease, silicosis. These groups argue that silicosis is entirely preventable and emphasize the importance of taking decisive action to protect the health and safety of workers handling these materials​​.

Industry and Workforce Impact

The engineered stone industry in Australia, which employs an estimated 8,000-10,000 workers, represents about 0.7% of workers exposed to silica and silicosis risks. This ban will significantly impact trade jobs in Australia, particularly those in the stone-cutting and manufacturing sectors and blue-collar jobs in related industries.

Government and Regulatory Response in Australia

Government and Regulatory Response in Australia

Report Deliberation 

The Australian government, led by Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke, is under scrutiny to release Safe Work Australia’s report on the engineered stone ban. This report is crucial in guiding the government’s response to the issue.

State-Level Responses

Various state governments have expressed differing viewpoints, with some states supporting a total ban on engineered stone. However, there’s also a recognition of the need to consider the potential unintended consequences of a complete prohibition.

National Meeting and Decisions

The final decision on the ban is expected to be made following a national meeting where the report’s findings and recommendations will be discussed among state and federal ministers.

Ban Announcement

On December 13, 2023, Australian federal, state, and territory governments jointly announced a decision to ban the use, supply, and manufacture of engineered stone slabs containing crystalline silica, including quartz-based products. This ban is set to take effect on July 1, 2024, in most Australian states and territories.

The Caesarstone Lawsuit and Engineered Stone Safety Concerns

In response to the burgeoning concerns surrounding the health risks of engineered stone, notable industry player Caesarstone found itself at the center of legal scrutiny. The lawsuit, stemming from allegations of inadequate warnings about the health risks associated with silica exposure, brought significant attention to the safety practices of engineered stone manufacturers. This legal action, among others, underscores the increasing demand for industry accountability and the urgent need for safer materials in construction and manufacturing sectors.

The implications of such lawsuits are far-reaching, influencing regulatory actions, including Australia’s landmark decision to ban engineered stone. The case highlights the critical dialogue between industry practices, legal standards, and public health priorities, reinforcing the importance of transparency and safety in product manufacturing and marketing.

Conclusion

The debate over engineered stone versus its alternatives in the stonemasonry industry centers around balancing economic interests with worker safety. The use of engineered stone, popular for its aesthetic appeal and durability, has been linked to serious health risks, particularly silicosis, due to its high crystalline silica content. Alternatives like stainless steel, timber, and laminate, while offering varied aesthetics and functionalities, significantly reduce or eliminate this health risk.

At DayJob Recruitment, we deeply recognize the critical importance of worker safety, especially in high-risk industries like stonemasonry. Our commitment to prioritizing the recruitment of skilled and trained professionals isn’t just about filling positions; it’s about actively contributing to a culture of safety and responsibility in the Australian blue-collar sector.

Join us in this vital mission. Whether you’re an employer seeking to enhance your workforce or a professional looking to work in a safe, supportive environment, connect with Dayjob Recruitment. Contact us today to learn more about the top stonemason jobs and blue-collar jobs in Australia and be a part of this essential change.

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Construction Health and Safety Training

Stonemasons undergo specialized health and safety training relevant to their profession. This training covers the inherent risks within the profession, ensuring that stonemasons are aware of potential dangers, know the proper breathing equipment to protect the lungs, and are competent on how to complete their job safely.

Manual Handling Hazards

Companies implement well-established principles of manual handling to reduce the risk of injury when moving large slabs of stone. This includes avoiding unnecessary activities, assessing the risks of unavoidable hazardous activities, and taking measures to lessen the risk of injury.

Respiratory Disease Prevention

Masks and ventilation systems are used to prevent stone dust from being inhaled, reducing the risk of diseases like silicosis, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Safe Work Practices

Procedures for safely storing and moving large stone slabs are strictly followed. For instance, stones are not stored on their edge to prevent them from falling and causing injuries. Additionally, stone cutting is done in well-ventilated environments, and dust that settles on surfaces is cleaned promptly.

Use of Protective Equipment

Workers use appropriate protective equipment such as dust masks, breathing equipment, and hearing protection while cutting stones or working in noisy environments.

What Other Alternatives Are Stonemasonry Companies Considering in Light of Their Workers’ Safety?

Engineered stone contains 40% to 90% silica. Thus, alternatives are being considered to reduce the risk to workers. Some of these are shown below:

MaterialDurabilityCrystalline Silica ContentHealth Safety for WorkersPrice Comparison
Natural MarbleHigh-end, luxurious, can chip or markLower than engineered stone; less than 5% crystalline silicaSafer than engineered stoneExpensive
Natural GraniteExtremely durable and strongLower than engineered stone; 25% to 60% crystalline silicaSafer than engineered stoneCan be expensive
SandstoneRelatively durable material, but softer and porous 70% to 90% crystalline silicaSafer, precautions still neededAffordable
SlateRelatively durable and long-lasting; less porous than sandstone20% to 40% crystalline silicaSafer than engineered stoneMore expensive than sandstone; mid-range option
Stainless SteelVery durable, easy to clean, hygienicZeroVery safeCan be comparable to high-end engineered stone
TimberDurable, requires maintenanceZeroVery safeAffordable
TilesSturdy, heat-resistantVaries depending on the materialGenerally safer, precautions needed for certain typesVaries
ConcreteExtremely durableLower than engineered stone, but presentSafer, precautions still neededVaries
LaminateLess durable, practical for budget useZeroVery safeMost affordable
Solid Surface (e.g., Corian)Durable, non-porous, stain-resistantCan be made with zero silicaVery safeComparable to high-end engineered stone
Recycled GlassDurable, resistant to scratches and heatRanges from little to zeroGenerally safeCan be more expensive
PorcelainHighly durable, fireproof, UV resistantLow; 14% to 18% crystalline silicaSafer, precautions still neededExpensive
Silestone Q10 (Cosentino)Durable like engineered stoneLess than 10% crystalline silicaSafer than traditional engineered stoneComparable to high-end engineered stone
Silestone Q40 (Cosentino)Durable like engineered stoneLess than 40% crystalline silicaSafer than traditional engineered stoneComparable to high-end engineered stone

FAQs

Which countries have banned engineered stone?

Australia has announced a national ban on engineered stone from 1 July 2024 due to health risks associated with silica dust, making it the first country to implement such a comprehensive prohibition.

Can you still buy engineered stone?

As of the information available, engineered stone can still be purchased until the ban takes effect in Australia in July 2024. Major retailers like IKEA and Bunnings have committed to removing engineered stone products from their shelves by the end of 2023.

How can you tell if a stone is engineered?

Engineered stone typically has a more uniform pattern and coloration compared to natural stone, due to its manufacturing process which mixes quartz crystals with resins and pigments. Natural variations are less common in engineered stone, making its appearance more consistent.

What is the difference between engineered stone and real stone?

Engineered stone is manufactured from quartz crystals combined with resin, offering a more uniform and consistent appearance, while real stone (natural stone) comes directly from quarries with natural variations in color and pattern. Engineered stone is known for its durability and less porous surface, making it resistant to stains and scratches.

However, the high silica content in engineered stone has raised health concerns, leading to the aforementioned ban in Australia.

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