ENGINEERED stone benchtops might be reaping savings and prestige for many new homeowners and renovators, but they also wreak a terrible human toll on stonemasons.
The workers who cut, drill, grind and polish the artificial stone to produce these benchtops, often without proper safety protections, are at risk of inhaling invisible silica dust.
The lung diseases Silicosis, Lung Cancer, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and a host of other severe medical conditions are deadly results of creating the benchtops.
In a June report, the National Dust Disease Taskforce acknowledged that the incidence of silicosis is on the rise.
Safe Work Australia puts the number of accepted workers’ compensation claims for the disease at 388 in the years between 2009 and 2019.
Lung Foundation Australia said the surge in cases comes down to the housing boom and associated rise in demand for silica-containing benchtop materials.
Lung Foundation CEO Mark Brooke is encouraging people to rethink the purchase of engineered stone for their homes.
“We hope consumers vote with their wallets on this and that sentiment will change as people renovating or building their homes become aware of the implications of using these products,” Mr Brooke said.
The National Dust Disease Taskforce warned the engineered stone benchtop industry it is on notice and should face a ban on the product within three years if workers continue to be inadequately protected.
Mr Brooke welcomed recommendations that stonemasons receive enhanced preventative and screening measures against silicosis.
He sees it as a positive step towards addressing the alarming resurgence of the condition.
However, he called for the government to implement a ban within two years, not three.
“As for the industry, we urge those running businesses to immediately invest, in all ways possible, to improve the safety of workers,” Mr Brooke added.
Cancer Council SA Community Education Coordinator Diem Tran said almost 600,000 Australian workers were exposed to silica dust in the workplace in 2011 alone.
Of those, almost 6,000 will develop lung cancer in their lifetimes.
“Not all exposed workers will develop cancer, but cancer risk increases with long-term or repeated high-level exposure,” Ms Tran said.
She called on businesses to eliminate or reduce workers’ vulnerability to silica dust by implementing best-practice risk management processes.
Lung Foundation Australia has released a new factsheet on living with silicosis.
It also lays the blame for rising disease rates in workers at the feet of road-building, tunnelling and mining projects.
The Foundation also reminds stonemasons and their employers that early detection of the condition is vital.
Although there is no cure, medical and self-treatment strategies including medication and healthy lifestyle choices may help to slow its progression.
The new factsheet complements other education and support resources the Foundation has already published on lung health in the workplace on its website.