Australia’s biggest construction union has declared it will go it alone and ban members from working with silicosis-linked engineered (artificial) stone if the Federal Government fails to take effective action.
The declaration comes after the government announced earlier this year it would not support a recommendation by the National Dust Diseases Taskforce to put the sector “on notice” by threatening to stop all artificial stone imports if its safety record did not improve by 2024.
This was despite the taskforce reporting alarming rates of harm, with over 20% of those working prior to 2018 diagnosed with silicosis or other silica dust-related diseases.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) said if the federal government did not ban the use of engineered stone products like Caesarstone by July 2024, it would ban its members from using it.
“The time for talk is over and the time for action is now,” secretary Zac Smith told reporters last week.
“Engineered stone is the asbestos of the 2000s.”
Victoria, NSW and Queensland have already banned dry-cutting engineered stone, while other jurisdictions are considering following suit.
In the all-government response to the taskforce released in March, the states, territories and Commonwealth stressed the current plan was to allow the industry to self-regulate, although it said there would be a crackdown on rogue operators.
Work was also underway on a national code of practice for the artificial stone benchtop industry and systems for workplace monitoring of respirable crystalline silica levels, it added.
And $11 million would be spent on a national awareness and education campaign.
But the CFMEU, which boasts almost 150,000 members, said it was too little, too late.
The union cited modelling by Curtin University estimating up to 103,000 workers in Australia will be diagnosed with silicosis and 10,000 workers will develop lung cancer as a result of their current exposure to silica dust at work.
It said in NSW alone, almost one-in-four engineered stone workers who had been in the industry since 2018 had been diagnosed with silicosis or another dust-related disease.
“Australian workers will keep dying unless we ban engineered stone,” Mr Smith said.
“If the Federal Government doesn’t ban killer stone, the CFMEU will.”
The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations said there would be an amendment to work health and safety laws to explicitly prohibit uncontrolled processing of engineered stone.
It said it would also work with unions to address health issues arising from silica dust exposure.