Workplace Health and Safety Ministers must look beyond a ban on engineered stone and put in place a respiratory protection program for all workers throughout Australia in order to reduce the incidence of silicosis, according to multiple medical, health and OHS-related bodies and associations.
Over the past two decades there has been a high uptake in the use of high-silica content engineered stone products and this, combined with increased exposures in other industries, has resulted in a dramatic increase in the numbers of people diagnosed with lung and other pathologies (such as silicosis and lung cancer) due to exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS).
“As experts in health, disease prevention, and occupational health and safety, we believe that it is essential that governments and employers adopt policies and programs to systematically control exposure to RCS, including implementing a ban on the use of high-content silica engineered stone products,” said Naomi Kemp, Chair of the AIHS, in a joint statement issued together with the Lung Foundation Australia, Public Health Association Australia, The Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand, the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygenist and The Australian and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine.
As there is no cure for silicosis, a significant subset of people will be plagued by deteriorating health and untimely death, and the statement also noted the increase in cases of silicosis clearly demonstrates the lack of awareness and failure to effectively control harmful exposures to RCS.
The renewed push to ban engineered stone follows a ‘Last Gasp’ investigation from Nine which found that workers continue to be exposed to silica dust at work.
In 2019, the AIHS was calling for a stricter approach to engineered stone with its submission to National Dust Disease Taskforce.
“In the same way as asbestos has been banned for safety reasons, consideration has to be given to a long-term strategy, say over five years, of eliminating the new installation of high quartz stone in kitchen construction,” the AIHS said in its submission.
“Fundamentally it is a fashion item, and certainly not worth sacrificing the health of workers.”
The AIHS’ statement was echoed by The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, which said silicosis is another example that Australian WHS systems have failed to protect workers from completely preventable occupational diseases.
“Despite the first case of accelerated silicosis being reported in Australia in 2015, we still have no idea about the extent of this disease across Australia,” said RACP spokesperson Dr Warren Harrex.
“We need a national dust disease reporting system and national dust disease registry as a matter of priority. Accelerated silicosis is just the tip of the iceberg of dust causing harm to workers, as dust exposure which may cause silicosis and other diseases is common in many occupations across Australia.”
Dust exposure in workers may not be evident until retirement, with chronic obstructive lung disease contributing to a burden on public health expenditure, and he said regular air monitoring of potentially dusty workplaces should be mandatory, and potentially exposed workers require mandatory and ongoing health surveillance.
“If a ban on engineered stone is the only thing that is discussed then we’re really missing the chance to properly reform the sector to prevent further silicosis deaths,” said Harrex.
“Even if we ban engineered stone – we will still see other workers developing or dying of silicosis from exposure to other dusts, including in the tunnelling, construction and mining industries. This is why we need a system-wide workplace health and safety reform.”