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States urged to ban potentially deadly benchtop stone

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State and territory workplace health and safety ministers will be asked to fast-track a ban on the domestic use of silica, following its link to a deadly lung condition.

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An estimated 600,000 workers have been exposed to silica dust generated through mining, construction, building and manufacturing.

Kitchen benchtops made from engineered stone are particularly dangerous, with about one in four stonemasons who work with them developing the deadly and incurable disease silicosis.

Federal Workplace Minister Tony Burke will put the ban proposal to ministers at a meeting on Tuesday, with the hope regulations could be drafted by the end of the year.

He said he has a “good degree of confidence” about getting support from the states and territories to scope out an immediate ban, with the federal minister needing two-thirds of jurisdictions to agree.

“Silica has the risk of becoming the new asbestos,” he told reporters in Canberra.

But any bans will not be immediate even if a decision is made on Tuesday, with a six month scoping process from Safe Work Australia before the report is considered in the second half of the year.

Burke said the scoping would include what percentage of silica in stone would be banned.

“If you’re talking about kitchen, bathroom benchtops, some of them go up to 95 per cent silica. Others can be as low as 40 per cent, lower than ordinary stone,” he said.

“Safe Work Australia have the expertise to work through exactly where the line should be drawn.

“But wherever that line is drawn, it has to be drawn on the side of people being able to go to work and come home without a terminal illness.”

One estimate from Curtin University puts the number of silicosis cases between 80,000 and 100,000, with about 600,000 workers exposed to the potentially deadly dust each year.

The minister said any ban would take at least 12 months.

The dust and diseases task force recommended governments start considering a ban in July next year.

The construction union said it would take the “extremely rare step” of banning engineered stone from July 2024 if the federal government didn’t act earlier.

“We can’t afford to waste another day,” incoming CFMEU National Secretary Zach Smith said.

“Anything less than a ban sends a signal this product is fine, when in actual fact it’s the asbestos of this generation.

“Morally bankrupt companies flooding Australia with cheap engineered stone need to be sent the clearest possible message.”

A report by Safe Work Australia to be presented to the ministers will recommend three actions – an education and awareness campaign, better regulation of silica dust across all industries, and further analysis and scoping of a ban on use of engineered stone.

Ministers will meet again later in the year to review progress.

As well, Burke is set to announce the federal government will consider an importation ban after consulting stakeholders.

“If a children’s toy was harming or killing kids we’d take it off the shelves. How many thousands of workers have to die before we do something about silica products?” Burke said.

He said while he wished action had been taken earlier, it was not a partisan issue with states and territories coming to the table with goodwill.

“We can’t keep delaying this. I’m not willing to wait around the way people did with asbestos,” he said.

Occupational health experts say the material can’t be worked with safely despite the use of equipment such as masks.

-AAP

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