Engineered stone will stop being sold at Bunnings stores across the country by the end of the year following mounting pressure to remove what’s been labelled “the asbestos of our generation”.
A new Workplace Code of Practice takes effect in the ACT from today (15 November) around managing the risks of airborne crystalline silica, also known as silica dust.
WorkSafe ACT has been taking steps to reduce the risks of silica dust. The code was developed to inform duty holders and workers about exposure to silica dust, including information about identifying the hazard, air monitoring, health monitoring, controlling the risks, maintenance of control measures and safe work method statements (SWMS).
Work Health and Safety (WHS) Commissioner Jacqueline Agius wanted everyone to understand just how dangerous silica dust is and welcomed the code at what she called a “critical time”.
“We continue to see non-compliance, with failures to protect workers from silica dust. This code provides businesses with information about what must be done to comply,” she said.
“We must take a stand, take action, and use the new code of practice to ensure workers are protected from silica dust that comes from all materials – not just engineered stone, but also materials like concrete and bricks and other natural stones.”
WorkSafe ACT has upskilled its inspectors and formed an Occupational Hygiene team to focus on workplaces that work with engineered stone and silica-containing materials.
Ms Agius reminded duty holders there had been a grace period to get prepared by training workers and complying with obligations – and that ended some time ago.
“I have made it very clear that workers must be protected from the risks of silica dust, and WorkSafe ACT inspectors will continue to be out in force and respond to any reports of dry cutting or non-compliance,” she said.
“We can and must prevent exposure. Using engineered stone is a choice. We do not need to use it.”
Earlier this year, SafeWork Australia recommended a ban on engineered stone, and the ACT Government backed a call for a national prohibition on the product.
Industrial Relations and Workplace Safety Minister Mick Gentleman will support the move at the next meeting of state and federal ministers in December, off the back of the Territory placing prohibitions on the dry and uncontrolled cutting of silica-containing materials last year.
“The risk of silicosis posed by engineered stone use is much higher,” he said.
“There is no scientific evidence of a safe level of exposure to silica dust generated from cutting engineered stone, even lower silica content slabs. Engineered stone workers are markedly over-represented among workers diagnosed with silicosis.
“Engineered stone workers who contract silicosis typically experience faster onset and a more rapid progression of the disease than other workers, including those working with natural stone. It is vital that we take action to keep workers safe.”
If a national ban isn’t supported, the ACT Government is considering implementing its own local ban on the product.
But it appears some already know the writing is on the wall for engineered stone.
Unions have been pushing for a ban on the material, while Bunnings will stop selling engineered stone kitchen bench tops from 31 December 2023.
CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith said this was the “end of the line” for the product.
“When even a massive corporation that until now has put profits over workers’ lives concedes it’s lost any remaining social licence to sell this killer stone, no government can squib it on a ban,” he said.
“Bunnings should be congratulated for eventually doing the right thing and pulling these deadly bench tops from their shelves.”
Mr Smith called on other retailers to follow suit.
“IKEA talks a big game on social responsibility yet lines its shelves with bench tops that kill Australians,” he said.
“Today, all governments and businesses are on notice that Australians will accept nothing less than a total ban on the import, manufacture and use of engineered stone.
“The CFMEU won’t rest until the asbestos of our generation is stopped forever.”
The union has previously stated it would implement its own ban on members working with engineered stone if governments fail to do so.