Building industry backs high-silica kitchen benchtop ban

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A major building lobby backs a ban on engineered stone benchtops with deadly concentrations of crystalline silica and has called on the government to urgently fund the testing of workers on construction sites.

Industry body Master Builders Australia said it would support a ban on kitchen slabs with more than 40 per cent silica, a substance that causes irreversible lung damage, but only if tradesmen tasked with removing or modifying already installed benchtops aren’t subject to additional red tape.

The building lobby supports a ban engineered stone with high concentrations of crystalline silica, if some tasks are exempted.Credit:

“Master Builders’ submits that the need to obtain a licence by those who might only ever undertake infrequent work with engineered stone with more than 40 per cent crystalline silica would be administratively unreasonable,” its submission to a government inquiry reads, cautioning against any ban that would have “unintended consequences”.

The position of the industry, a major buyer of engineered stone, is in line with key business group the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, but at odds with the stance of unions and health groups, who support a total ban on engineered stone, and a strict licensing regime to oversee its removal from homes.

All have made submissions to federal oversight body Safe Work Australia, which is looking into the implications of a total ban on engineered stone following an investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes that found states’ regulatory regimes were doing little to stop tradespeople contracting silicosis.

Master Builders also wants the government to fund the testing of construction workers across the industry to determine levels of exposure to crystalline silica.

“This would address the significant deficiency in
contemporary exposure data and allow both industry and governments alike to obtain an accurate understanding of where silica-related hazards exist and how to best tackle them,” the submission reads.

A spokesman for Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said the government would respond to Safe Work’s recommendations once they were made.

Burke has given Safe Work until August to produce its findings, with the agency canvassing multiple options with health groups, unions and industry, including a ban on products containing more than 40 per cent crystalline silica.

Safe Work explains in its consultation paper that figure comes from Victoria’s licensing scheme, which imposes heavier regulations on businesses dealing with manufactured slabs with silica concentrations greater than 40 per cent, which it says is the upper range for natural stone products such as granite and marble.

But it also says it’s not aware of evidence that shows 40 per cent represents the threshold between lower and higher-risk engineered stone products, which can have up to 95 per cent crystalline silica.

A silicosis sufferer, 31-year-old Ken Parker, undergoes a lung function test at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney.Credit: Steven Siewert

The Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists argues in its submission the 40 per cent cut-off assumes workers dealing with natural stone aren’t contracting silica-related disease, when cases of silicosis have occurred with stonemasons working with natural stone and miners dealing with minerals containing less than 40 per cent.

The option proposed by Safe Work would require anyone working with engineered stone with higher concentrations – for the purpose of removal, repair or small modifications – to have a license, including mandatory training and air and health monitoring.

However, Master Builders argues anyone performing less than 10 minutes of work on slabs above that threshold shouldn’t need a licence. “If a licencing scheme were to be introduced it should only be required for [businesses] who are manufacturing, fabricating, or installing engineered stone products,” the submission reads.

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