Australia the first country to prohibit engineered stone and protect workers from deadly silica dust

Australia has become the first country in the world to agree to implement laws prohibiting the use, supply, and manufacture of all engineered stone. The prohibition, which will occur in most jurisdictions on 1 July 2024, is a response to increasing concern amongst workers, businesses, and the public in relation to the development of silicosis in engineered stone workers, a debilitating lung disease caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica. With an estimated 10,000 people working in the engineered stone industry in Australia, the decision will have far reaching impacts and will hopefully see a significant decrease in the number of workers affected by silicosis and silica related diseases.

Silica dust and silicosis

Silicon Dioxide or ‘silica’ is a naturally occurring mineral found in rocks, soil, and sand. There are two main types of silica, crystalline which is associated with health issues and commonly found in quartz, and non-crystalline. Silica dust is the small particles of silica which become loose and airborne. The general population is exposed to silica dust from sources such as soil, water, and concrete. However, these silica particles are generally too big to breathe into the lungs (non-respirable).

Since the 2000s, engineered stone products containing crystalline silica have been a popular alternative to granite and marble products due to their affordability, durability, and aesthetic appeal. According to Caesarstone, a brand which has become synonymous with engineered stone, more than two million Australian homes and businesses contain an engineered stone benchtop or surface. However, the process of cutting, grinding, shaping, or polishing engineered stone releases large volumes of extremely small, or respirable, particles of crystalline silica (respirable silica dust) into the environment which can be breathed in by nearby workers.

Numerous studies have shown that people who are exposed to respirable silica dust over a period of years can develop silicosis, a serious lung disease which causes irreversible scarring and stiffening of the lungs. A disproportionate number of engineered stone workers have developed silicosis with an early onset and rapid progression, with the majority of suffers being under the age of 35. Exposure to respirable silica dust has also been shown to cause other debilitating diseases including lung cancer, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and autoimmune diseases.

The ‘Decision Regulation Impact Statement: Prohibition on the use of engineered stone’ published by Safe Work Australia in August 2023 recommended a complete prohibition on the use of engineered stone and the implementation of a licensing scheme for certain work involving previously installed engineered stone. Significantly, Safe Work Australia acknowledged that ‘adverse health effects are associated with airborne silica dust exposure, not the silica content of the bulk material’ meaning that there is no known safe level of exposure to respirable silica dust.

The prohibition

On 13 December 2023 the Commonwealth, State and Territory Workplace Relations and Work Health and Safety (WHS) Ministers accepted the findings and recommendations of Safe Work Australia and unanimously agreed to prohibit the use, supply, and manufacture of all engineered stone. The prohibition will commence in most jurisdictions on 1 July 2024, with appropriate exceptions for activities which involve the removal, disposal, and minor repair of engineered stone products installed prior to the prohibition and for products which contain only trace levels of crystalline silica (less than 1%). The Commonwealth has noted its intention to implement a complementary customs prohibition on engineered stone. While the Ministers agreed that a transition period for contracts entered into before 13 December 2023 would be appropriate, they are encouraging businesses not to enter into contracts for engineered stone products from 1 January 2024.

What does this mean for workers and Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking?

From 1 July 2024, workers, employers and Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBUs) will be prohibited from using, supplying, or manufacturing engineered stone. While the prohibiting provisions have not been developed or made public, provisions relating to the prohibition of asbestos under WHS laws and regulations may offer insight into the likely contents and operation of the engineered stone provisions. For example, it is likely that similar penalties for a breach of the prohibition on carrying out work involving asbestos will attach to the prohibition on engineered stone. Under the Model Work Health and Safety Regulations, a PCBU that carries out or directs or allows a worker to carry out work involving asbestos where no exception applies will face a maximum monetary penalty of $8,400 for an individual and $42,000 for a body corporate.

It is also likely that PCBUs, officers of PCBUs, and workers will have health and safety duties in relation to engineered stone and silica dust exposure under WHS laws. PCBUs, officers and workers must be knowledgeable on changes to their WHS duties to ensure they continue to meet their duties and obligations and avoid the imposition of penalties. PCBUs should also be aware that any contracts which are entered into after the 13 December 2023 may not be able to be lawfully fulfilled and alternative arrangements may need to be made.

 For more information, please contact Michael Tooma – Partner, Head of ESG


Partner, Head of ESG