Government asks Safe Work to scope out ban on engineered stone

by Sophie Berrill
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Tony Burke

Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has tasked Safe Work Australia with scoping out new regulations around silica, including a potential ban on engineered stone, following a “unanimous” decision from state and territory workplace safety ministers. 

Engineered stone is a popular composite material used in kitchen and bathroom benchtops, which can contain high levels of silica. Working with engineered stone can expose people to silica dust inhalation and lead to a range of potentially fatal respiratory diseases, such as silicosis.

Burke announced on Tuesday that Safe Work Australia will immediately investigate what regulation is required for all workplaces that deal with silica dust. Safe Work would also scope out what a ban on engineered stone would look like.

“Not all engineered stone is at 97-98 percent silica,” says Burke.

“There are some forms that are at much lower levels of percentages, and therefore present a much lower risk – some where the risk is no different to natural stone.”

If there were to be a prohibition, Safe Work Australia has the task of figuring out where to draw that line. It must also scope out how a nationally consistent licensing system might work for whatever might be viewed as safe to be on the market.

Dealing with legacy products likened to asbestos

The proposed licensing system would also have to apply to legacy products already in homes and buildings, according to Burke. 

“Even for the most dangerous of these products, they will now be in kitchens where, as long as they’re left alone, they’ll be quite safe. But what happens when that homeowner decides it’s time to renovate? What happens if there’s a demolition of the house?” he says. 

“Effectively the experience we went through with asbestos is now going to be with us as we work through the legacy items on these engineered stone benchtops. 

“No one should be worried in terms of what they currently have in their home and think suddenly that’s a dangerous item to have. But the moment it’s adjusted, the moment it’s moved, the risk is real and we do not currently have the rules in place to make sure that it’s safe.”

CFMEU calls for total ban by 2024

This minister’s action follows the launch of the CFMEU’s ‘Stop This Killer Stone’ campaign last year. 

As part of the campaign, the union issued an ultimatum to the Government, saying it will implement its own workplace ban on engineered stone products if the government fails to ban their importation and manufacture by July 2024.

On Tuesday, the CFMEU’s national secretary Zach Smith told Sky News the union “won’t rest until the ban is implemented” and it stands by its ultimatum.

Smith was also asked whether the CFMEU would support the approval of a “safe” level of silica.

“I have seen certain organisations throwing around 40 percent, for instance. We’re not prepared to commit to 40 percent unless it is backed up by the expert research, and I’m yet to see that,” says Smith. 

“Wherever the definition of engineered stone is drawn, wherever those lines are, it needs to be backed by the best available research and science.”

Image: ABC News

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