Workplace health regulators have raised the alarm about engineered stone bench tops after an audit of 10 manufacturers in Queensland revealed 26 workers had contracted the debilitating lung disease silicosis. At least six of the diagnoses are considered terminal.
Amid alerts of an “asbestos-type epidemic” afflicting stonemasons, the Queensland government yesterday urged companies to immediately cease the dry cutting and grinding practices that spray countless deadly silica fibres around their workshops.
As regulators continued screening workers at Queensland’s 150 manufacturers, the state government called on Canberra to coordinate a national response.
“The audit uncovered extremely poor work practices including uncontrolled dry-cutting, inadequate ventilation and a lack of personal protective equipment such as respiratory masks,” said state Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace, adding she would work with industry to update regulations.
“Tragically, some of these workers are young, including a 27-year-old, and Workplace Health and Safety Queensland has advised further cases are likely.”
Among the patients diagnosed as terminal is Anthony White, a 36-year-old Gold Coast stonemason whose lungs are badly scarred after a decade working with engineered stone. Doctors say he could die in two to five years without a double lung transplant, which could extend his life by up to 15 years. But first he must rebuild his immune system and regain some of the 15kg lost since his diagnosis last November.
Mr White blamed a lack of “policing” for the crisis, saying safety standards varied depending on “what factory you were at, how big the company was, and how much money they had”.
“They give you a mask, they give you all the stuff to wear, but it’s not policed anywhere. There’s no one making sure everyone is doing what they are meant to be doing,” he told The Australian.
He said industry standards had failed to keep pace with the health threat posed by engineered stone, which contains about 90 per cent crystalline silica compared with 5 per cent in natural marble.
“It just seems like all the old-school ways we used to work with natural (stone) just got put onto the man-made stuff,” he said.
Mr White, whose mother has quit work to be his carer, said he was thankful he had no wife or children to care for.
Shine Lawyers special counsel Roger Singh, who specialises in dust diseases, called on the state government to improve regulation of the stonemason industry.
“We do not want another asbestos-type epidemic terrorising the health of our nation’s stonemasons,” he said. “We need better health outcomes for these workers and we need them now.”
Federal Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O’Dwyer’s spokesman expressed “concern” but said the issue was “primarily a matter for state governments”. He said Safe Work Australia was reviewing exposure standards to ensure they were “based on the highest quality evidence and supported by a rigorous, scientific approach”.
Article from The Australian, 19th September 2018