Bunnings has announced that it will take man-made stone off of its shelves after hundreds of tradies who had worked on it developed silicosis – a terminal illness.
The CMFEU took credit for leading a public pressure campaign against the hardware giant, but a Bunnings spokesperson said Safe Work Australia recently endorsing a silica ban prompted them to announce their ban on Tuesday.
Kitchen benchtops containing engineered stone will be pulled from Bunnings’ product line-up on December 31.
Man-made stone had been linked to silicosis due to its high silica content which tradies had breathed in during the cutting process.
When silica dust becomes trapped in the lung it is impossible to remove and can lead to deadly cases of chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Ben Harrison, 34, spent 10 years working as a stonemason on the Gold Coast before coming down with silicosis and had been fighting for Bunnings to ban the product, claiming that it had been ‘profiting from death’.
CFMEU National Secretary Zach Smith said that the Bunnings ban is a start and now the union will begin pushing harder for a national ban.
‘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 wrote in a statement.
‘The only reason Bunnings finally sided with workers’ health was grassroots pressure from CFMEU members passionate about saving lives.
‘All retailers must follow suit immediately. IKEA talks a big game on social responsibility yet lines its shelves with bench tops that kill Australians.
‘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.’
Bunnings Director of Merchandise, Jen Tucker, said that a recent Safe Work Australia report made the company decide to ban the stone, not the CMFEU.
It proactively removed man-made stone to give its suppliers and customers time to prepare for a transition before state governments began banning it themselves.
‘The safety of our team and customers is our biggest priority which is why the aggressive behaviour shown by some CFMEU protestors towards some of our team at a Victorian store over the weekend was deeply disappointing,’ the spokesperson said.
‘Our decision to stop selling engineered stone was directly in response to the reports released and the prospect of a ban on the sale in the near future.
‘The decision to adjust our range now will give our suppliers certainty about future sourcing of materials and should mean we’re well positioned to offer a fully-compliant range well ahead of any changes being mandated.’
The majority of benchtops sold in Bunnings are laminate and timber, and it did not sell man-made stone benchtops to DIY customers looking to cut it themselves.
Safe Work Australia released its decision regulation impact statement in August and sided with embattled tradies who called for man-made stone to be outlawed.
The organisation wrote that stonecutters face a greater risk of developing silicosis in their line of work and that their industry has a history of non-compliance in regards to enforcing a cap on the level of silica in their products.
‘At present an unknown number of Australian workers will go on to develop silicosis because of their prior exposure to RCS from working with engineered stone,’ it wrote.
‘The only way to ensure that another generation of Australian workers do not contract silicosis from such work is to prohibit its use, regardless of its silica content.’
Silica has been referred to as the ‘asbestos of our generation’ and its ban has been an issue of public debate for years now.
The Australian Engineered Stone Advisory Group, which represents most of the engineered stone suppliers in Australia, recently launched its own awareness campaign for the continued sale of man-made stone.
It claimed that banning the product outright would not solve the issue but a cap on the silica content in the material would prevent more tradies becoming sick.
‘A complete Ban on Engineered Stone is not the answer and will not eliminate Silicosis, but by banning Engineered Stone over 40 per cent Silica combined with education and licensing we make change for the future,’ it wrote.
Caesarstone, one of the signatories on the campaign, endorsed the idea of a ‘complete silica safety plan’.
‘Caesarstone accepts that there are risks to workers if proper WHS techniques are not followed,’ a spokesperson told Daily Mail Australia.
‘But that applies to all stone containing silica, not just engineered stone. Exactly the same WHS techniques must be used and enforced when cutting stone with 10 per cent silica content as when cutting stone with 95 per cent content.
‘That is why a ban on engineered stone alone will not solve the issue of silicosis. It will continue to leave workers exposed to risks from all other stones containing silica, including most replacement countertop materials, such as granite.’
Mr Harrison’s wife, Cristale, likened the petition to the work of asbestos industries when they also tried blocking a ban of the similarly toxic substance in the early 2000’s.
Doctors told Mr Harrison that he had the incurable disease the day before his 30th birthday after workmates talked him into getting tested.
Since then the former stone cutter has been making weekly doctors visits, sometimes up to three per week when his symptoms flare, and has been forced to wear a mask when outside of his house in order to avoid infection.
Ms Harrison told Daily Mail Australia that the diagnosis has left her husband constantly fatigued and needing constant rest.
When the couple were told that Mr Harrison had silicosis they got engaged two days later and fought to make sure that they could get married before his condition made it impossible.
‘We [got] married on the 14th of October so that we can make sure we get married before he passes away,’ Ms Harrison said.
While planning for the wedding the pair also partnered with the Lung Foundation to pressure the government into a complete ban of the substance.
‘Bunnings is just profiting off death,’ Ms Harrison said in September. ‘They don’t care about the consequences.’
About 80 guests arrived for their wedding in Devonport, Tasmania, several of which were former colleagues of Mr Harrison who had also been diagnosed with silicosis, including his best man who is also in his early 30’s.
Ms Harrison said that she could barely get through her vows without choking back tears.
‘I think I spent the whole day on and off crying,’ she said.
‘I was so happy that we were getting married but I guess I was also scared because we live in such unknown circumstances and I just don’t know how our life is going forward.’
Bleach is now a staple in their house, along with wearing masks outdoors, as the couple and their three young children try to avoid the ‘next big infection’.
‘We have his diagnosis looming over our heads constantly,’ Ms Harrison added.
What is silicosis?
Silicosis is an aggressive and incurable lung disease which results from breathing in crystalline silica (sand) dust.
The disease has been recognised as occurring in workers exposed to dust for hundreds of years – usually workers who had prolonged exposure to mineral dust, such as while working in mines.
When products containing crystalline silica are cut, crushed, polished or worked with in similar ways, they release very fine dust particles into the air which are usually so small as to be invisible.
These are then inhaled and may become lodged deep within the lungs where they can cause serious damage to your lungs and health.
Exposure to crystalline silica dust can cause chronic bronchitis and emphysema, among other lung diseases. Silica dust exposure symptoms include shortness of breath, severe cough, chest pain and fatigue.
There is no such thing as silica cancer. However, the presence of silica dust in the lungs can greatly increase the risk of developing lung cancer. Lung cancer from silica dust is also more likely if the person has been a smoker.
Silicosis is a disease marked by inflammation and scarring of the lungs. Silicosis is generally a progressive condition, which can lead to the development of other silica dust lung diseases and may lead to death.