Calls for Government to do more about hidden hazard in popular building product

Growing calls are being made for the Government to do more to protect people who are exposed to hazardous material in engineered stone. 

Engineered stone might be a home renovator's dream but it is turning into tradies' nightmare and putting their lives at risk. 

There are major concerns around the health issues posed to people working with the popular product which is used for kitchen and bathroom countertops.

The Council of Trade Unions is calling for more action from the Government when it comes to protecting workers who are being exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust.

Dr Alexandra Muthu from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians told AM the silica dust is discharged into the atmosphere and breathed in. She said when it's inhaled it can cause scarring and inflammation to the lungs within months. 

"It also goes inside the body and it can cause disease in the lungs, in the kidneys and autoimmune disease, it can result in cancer."

Dr Muthu told AM the exposure period of the silica dust from the engineered stone doesn't have to be long for damage to be caused. 

"There have been people in Australia who have only had seven months of working with the stone who have had the significant disease and needed lung transplants."

The Dr said a seven-month exposure period is the shortest time she's heard of but is usually about 1 to 5 years of exposure. 

"It's much shorter than back in the days of mining where we had what we call chronic silicosis, which is a 10 to 15-year delay."

She told AM there are several ways workers can protect themselves from the dangerous dust 

"The most important thing is that when we're working, we're not creating dust, so using water suppression, using ventilation, using machines that enclose the dust to protect the workers and then really good masks."

Managing director at Artisan Stone Steve Kirk said the red flags were raised five years ago and he knew he had to act when he heard of some of the "awful scenarios". 

Kirk said finding a testing regime for worker's health was "challenging", especially one that could provide a reliable result.

He said "everyone" working with engineered stone "should be" getting tested, but he's concerned people aren't.

"Last update I had with about 650 people who were working with stone nationally; only about 130 have been through the testing."

He told AM the testing is conducted through lung function tests, CT scans and x-rays, but the outcome can be "a little bit ambiguous".

"So they need to be assessed by a panel of experts to determine whether firstly, if there is  any scarring or the cause of that scarring is likely to be."

Kirk told AM the cost of the testing is covered by ACC and WorkSafe.

Dr Muthu now wants a national occupational health service implemented so learnings can be had about previous work hazards. 

"We're not learning from what came before. We haven't learnt from what happened with asbestos."

The Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, Michael Wood said the Government takes the health and safety concerns related to silicosis seriously and the industry is on notice.

Wood expects to see a high level of compliance with the safety regulations designed to protect employees.

He said WorkSafe, the Ministry of Health and ACC have been working together on this since 2019. This included the establishment of the Dust Diseases Taskforce, a national expert advisory group established to provide advice to New Zealand agencies to tackle dust disease health issues

Minister Wood is currently waiting for advice from MBIE regarding regulatory options.