18 Apr 2023

CTU urges ban on engineered stone products over silicosis risk

1:01 pm on 18 April 2023
A drill cutting stone.

Drilling and cutting engineered stone produces tiny silica dust. Photo: 123rf

The Council of Trade Unions (CTU) is urging a ban on engineered stone used in benchtops due to the risk to workers who manufacture them.

"Evidence from New Zealand and abroad shows that working with engineered stone is exposing workers to dangerous levels of silica dust and is causing terminal illnesses such as lung cancer, silicosis and other autoimmune diseases," CTU president Richard Wagstaff said.

Construction Health and Safety New Zealand (CHASNZ) said stronger action was required, along the lines measures being considered in Australia where proposals range from to banning its use to controlling it through strict licensing.

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018886531/call-to-ban-stone-benchtops-due-to-risks-for-manufacturers "We're really keen to do all we can to get it out of people's lives because it's dangerous" - CTU president Richard Wagstaff

"We don't think we need engineered stone. We've been without it before and there are plenty of alternatives," Wagstaff said.

Given evidence on the speed at which silicosis could develop there was no time to lose, he said.

"We're thinking that way to go is to urgently convene a discussion with industry players including worker representatives and employers, and look more precisely at the evidence, look at what can be done.

"Let's get around the table and get some evidence we can all agree on."

An engineered stone bench, with dirty dishes on it.

Engineered stone is hard-wearing, which has made it a popular choice in busy kitchens. Photo: The Detail/Alexia Russell

A WorkSafe safety alert in 2019 said 99 confirmed cases of silicosis associated with engineered stone benchtop work had been identified in Queensland, many consistent with accelerated silicosis, a form of the disease which develops over one to 10 years from inhalation of very high concentrations of respirable crystalline silica (RCS).

WorkSafe, ACC and the Ministry of Health have been working since 2020 to identify people at risk of developing accelerated silicosis.

As of the end of April 2023, 140 claims for accelerated silicosis had been lodged with ACC for assessment, RNZ's The Detail reported. WorkSafe knows of about 600 current and former workers in New Zealand who fabricate engineered stone who are at risk and potentially eligible for a health check.

Wagstaff said stronger safety regulation was unrealistic because of the large number of employers and contractors who buy, cut, drill and install the material in people's homes.

"You can imagine all of those contractors out there trying to get the job done, drill a hole in somebody's benchtop to put a tap in - the expectation that we can get those regulations binding in all those situations is not realistic."

He acknowledged WorkSafe had tried to step up people's awareness, but that in itself "won't do the job".

"The fact is we have engineered stone, it's being cut, it's being sanded, it's being modified therefore it's releasing dust, therefore it's a hazard, that we can remove quite safely in our view by using other materials."

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