By Dr Siavash Es’haghi
CEO & Managing Director, Lungscreen Australia
MB ChB FRANZCR, NIOSH Accredited B-reader

From 1 July 2024, the use of new engineered stone products will be banned in Australia. This landmark decision comes after mounting evidence linking the material to a significant rise in cases of silicosis, a debilitating and often fatal lung disease. This blog will explore the risks associated with the manufacture, supply and installation of engineered stone, provide an overview of silicosis and its types, and discuss how current safety measures have failed to protect workers. Finally, we will consider the future positive impact that this ban will have on workers’ health and lives.

Understanding Silicosis 

Silicosis is a form of occupational lung disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust. This dust is a component of various construction materials, including engineered stone, a popular choice in modern construction and renovation due to its durability and aesthetic appeal.When these particles are inhaled, they lodge deep within the lungs, causing inflammation and scarring of lung tissue. Over time, this leads to the formation of fibrotic nodules and a decrease in the lungs’ ability to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream. The disease can progress even after exposure to silica dust has ceased, making early detection and prevention crucial.

Statistics on Silicosis in Australia

Recent statistics highlight the alarming rise in silicosis cases in Australia:

  • Between 2010 and 2020, there was a 20% increase in reported cases of silicosis.
  • In Queensland alone, over 100 workers were diagnosed with silicosis in a single year.
  • Nationwide, thousands of workers are potentially at risk due to inadequate safety measures and prolonged exposure to silica dust.

The statistics underscore a growing public health crisis. Despite efforts to mitigate risks through improved safety protocols, the number of silicosis cases continues to rise, indicating that existing measures are insufficient.

Types of Silicosis 

Chronic Silicosis: This type develops after long-term exposure to low amounts of silica dust, often over 10 to 30 years. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, chronic cough, and fatigue. The slow progression of chronic silicosis can make it difficult to diagnose early, as symptoms may not appear until significant lung damage has occurred.

Accelerated Silicosis: Occurring after exposure to higher levels of silica dust over a shorter period (5 to 10 years), this form progresses more rapidly than chronic silicosis. Workers exposed to higher concentrations of silica dust, such as those involved in cutting, grinding, or polishing engineered stone, are at greater risk of developing accelerated silicosis. Symptoms can include severe shortness of breath, coughing, and chest pain.

Acute Silicosis: This severe form develops after short-term exposure to extremely high levels of silica dust, sometimes within weeks to a few years. Symptoms are severe and can include sudden shortness of breath, weight loss, and respiratory failure. Acute silicosis is the most aggressive form of the disease and can be fatal within months of symptom onset.

The Risks of Engineered Stone 

Engineered stone is composed of up to 90% silica, making it significantly more hazardous than natural stone. When cut, ground, or polished, engineered stone releases fine silica dust into the air, which workers can inhale. Despite safety measures, such as wet cutting and personal protective equipment (PPE), the incidence of silicosis among workers handling engineered stone has continued to rise alarmingly.

Why is Engineered Stone So Popular? 

Engineered stone, also known as quartz or composite stone, has gained popularity in recent years due to its aesthetic appeal, durability, and versatility. It is commonly used for kitchen countertops, bathroom vanities, and other interior applications. Unlike natural stone such as granite or marble, engineered stone is available in a wide range of colors and patterns, making it a preferred choice for many homeowners and designers. However, the high silica content that gives engineered stone its desirable properties also make it exceptionally hazardous to those who work with it. Importantly there is no evidence of risk to people who use engineered stone products which are already installed, such as families who have an engineered stone benchtop already in their home.

Why Safety Measures Have Failed 

Despite regulations and safety protocols, the incidence of silicosis continues to climb. Several factors have contributed to this failure:

Inadequate Enforcement: Regulations are often not strictly enforced, leading to lapses in safety practices on worksites. Inspectors may not visit sites frequently, and penalties for non-compliance may not be stringent enough to deter unsafe practices.

Insufficient Training: Workers often receive inadequate training on the proper handling of engineered stone and the importance of using personal protective equipment (PPE) correctly. Even when training is provided, it may not be comprehensive or regularly updated to reflect new safety standards and practices.

Lack of Awareness: Many workers and employers are unaware of the severe risks associated with silica dust exposure, leading to complacency in following safety guidelines. Awareness campaigns and educational initiatives may not reach all at-risk workers, particularly those in smaller companies or informal employment arrangements.

Economic Pressures: The construction industry often prioritises cost and time efficiency over worker safety, leading to unsafe practices and shortcuts. Employers may cut corners to meet tight deadlines or reduce costs, compromising the effectiveness of safety measures such as wet cutting and ventilation systems.

Examples of Safety Failures 

Numerous case studies highlight the failures of existing safety measures. For instance, in a 2019 investigation, it was found that many workshops did not adhere to recommended wet cutting practices, instead opting for dry cutting methods that produce more dust. Additionally, workers were often observed wearing inadequate PPE or none at all, despite the availability of proper equipment.

The Role of Government and Industry 

Government agencies and industry bodies have a crucial role to play in addressing this issue. Enhanced regulatory frameworks, stricter enforcement of safety standards, and comprehensive training programs are essential components of a successful strategy to prevent silicosis.

Government Initiatives 

Until now, the Australian government has taken several steps to address the silicosis crisis, including:

  • Developing National Standards: Establishing uniform safety standards for workplaces that handle silica-containing materials.
  • Funding Research: Supporting research into the health impacts of silica dust and the development of safer alternatives to engineered stone.
  • Raising Awareness: Implementing public awareness campaigns to educate workers and employers about the risks of silica dust and the importance of protective measures.

Industry Response 

Industry bodies, such as the Australian Stone Advisory Association (ASAA), have also taken action by providing guidelines and resources to help businesses comply with safety regulations. However, the effectiveness of these initiatives depends on widespread adoption and adherence by all stakeholders.

Impact of the Ban on Engineered Stone 

The decision to ban new engineered stone products from being manufactured, supplied and installed from 1 July 2024 is expected to have profound positive implications for worker health and safety.

Protecting Workers’ Lives

By eliminating the primary source of silica dust exposure, the ban will significantly reduce the risk of silicosis among workers. This measure is anticipated to save countless lives and prevent debilitating health conditions. Workers who might have developed silicosis due to continued exposure will now be spared, resulting in a healthier workforce and reduced healthcare costs.

Economic and Industry Impact

While the ban will undoubtedly impact the construction and renovation industries, the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term economic challenges. Alternatives to engineered stone, such as natural stone or other composite materials with lower silica content, are available and can be utilised without compromising worker safety.

Transitioning to Safer Alternatives

The industry will need to adapt to using safer materials. This transition may involve initial costs for businesses as they shift to alternative products and retrain workers. However, the long-term benefits, including a healthier workforce and reduced liability for employers, justify these investments.

Market Opportunities 

The ban also presents opportunities for innovation and market growth. Companies that develop and market safer alternatives to engineered stone can capitalise on the demand created by the ban. This could lead to the emergence of new products and technologies that enhance both safety and sustainability in the construction industry.

Legal and Regulatory Implications 

The ban sets a precedent for stringent occupational health and safety regulations. It underscores the importance of proactive measures in protecting workers and may lead to further reforms in other high-risk industries. Governments and regulatory bodies in other countries may look to Australia as a model for addressing similar issues, potentially leading to global improvements in worker safety standards.

Public Health Benefits 

The public health benefits of the ban extend beyond the prevention of silicosis. Reducing silica dust exposure can also lower the incidence of other respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer, which are also associated with silica inhalation. A healthier workforce contributes to overall societal well-being and reduces the burden on healthcare systems.

The ban on engineered stone is a critical step towards safeguarding the health and well-being of workers in Australia. Silicosis is a preventable disease, yet it has claimed too many lives due to inadequate safety measures and regulatory failures. By eliminating the primary source of silica dust exposure, we can prevent new cases of silicosis and ensure a safer working environment for future generations.

This decision reflects a commitment to worker safety and highlights the need for continued vigilance and enforcement of occupational health standards. As the ban takes effect, it is imperative that industries adapt and prioritise the health of their workers over economic gains, setting a standard for responsible and ethical business practices.

The journey towards a silica-free workplace is not without challenges, but it is a necessary one. The health and lives of workers depend on our collective efforts to ensure that safety measures are not just implemented, but rigorously followed and enforced. As we move forward, let this ban serve as a reminder of the importance of prioritising human health in all aspects of industry and employment.

Additional Resources 

For more information on silicosis and the upcoming ban on engineered stone, please refer to the following resources: 

Safe Work Australia 

Australian Government Department of Health 

Engineered Stone Council of Australia 

By staying informed and advocating for safer working conditions, we can contribute to the prevention of occupational diseases and protect the health of workers across Australia. 

Support Services 

A diagnosis of silicosis can be overwhelming and frightening, but there is support available for your patients. Lung Foundation Australia’s silicosis support services aim to help people living with silicosis, their families and carers, feel informed, empowered, and connected. The free, telephone-based Silicosis Support Nurse and Silicosis Social Worker are services that are designed to complement existing care provided by the treating healthcare team.