CFMEU to ban engineered stone benchtops that cause silicosis disease

Tradies’ unprecedented action over deadly material found in thousands of trendy Aussie kitchens that’s left a young dad trying to hold on for his kids and a mum struggling to breathe

  • Engineered stone benchtops when cut or polished are a source of silica dust
  • The stone benches are used in kitchens and other areas in construction projects
  • Tradies exposed to the silica dust can develop the lung condition silicosis 
  • One young mum-of-two who simply worked near quarry had the condition  

The Australian construction union is instructing workers to down tools if engineered stone benchtops used in kitchens are not banned by the federal government.

The stone benches, when cut or polished, send out a particularly potent type of dust that contains tiny silica crystals that can be inhaled.

The benches have caused more than 600 workers in NSW, Victoria and Queensland to be diagnosed with the potentially deadly silicosis, a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of the silica dust.

The worrying spike in silicosis led to the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) on Wednesday to demand the federal government ban imports of engineered stone by July 2024.

Joshua Suwa can't work as a stonemason due to a silicosis diagnosis. (pictured: Mr Suwa uses a timber fence to stabilize an engineered stone shelf he is cutting, without wearing a mask)

Joshua Suwa can’t work as a stonemason due to a silicosis diagnosis. (pictured: Mr Suwa uses a timber fence to stabilize an engineered stone shelf he is cutting, without wearing a mask) 

Silica dust from engineered stone has been singled out as a major culprit in lung disease diagnoses, especially silicosis

Silica dust from engineered stone has been singled out as a major culprit in lung disease diagnoses, especially silicosis

Mr Suwa is desperate to stick around as long as possible to see the two boys he and partner Erin have grow up (Pictured, Mr Suwa and his partner Erin and their boys)

Mr Suwa is desperate to stick around as long as possible to see the two boys he and partner Erin have grow up (Pictured, Mr Suwa and his partner Erin and their boys)

If the government doesn’t enforce the ban, the union will implement its own restrictions by instructing workers to take industrial action instead of using the stone product.

‘The time for talk is over and the time for action is now,’ secretary Zac Smith told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday.

‘This is the asbestos of the 2000s.’

Victoria and Queensland have already banned dry-cutting engineered stone, while the ACT and NSW are considering following suit.

At the federal level, the former coalition government last year received a report recommending the import of some or all engineered stone products should be outlawed from July 2024 but no ban has yet been actioned.

Australian mother-of-two Joanna McNeill, 34, was diagnosed with silicosis after working in an administration job near a quarry

Australian mother-of-two Joanna McNeill, 34, was diagnosed with silicosis after working in an administration job near a quarry

Mother-of-two Joanna McNeill, 34, worked in administration at a quarry and was diagnosed with silicosis when she went for a routine health assessment last year after returning to work from maternity leave. 

Mrs McNeill could feel dust from the quarry covering her face and hair when she left her office building to go home each day.

But she had no idea the tiny particles were slowly scarring her lungs and would one day leave her struggling to breathe.

The disease typically affects tradies who work on cutting and installing benchtops that use the stone. 

Daily Mail Australia previously spoke with two men, who should be in the prime of their lives, but are each sick after falling ill because of exposure to the silica dust while doing construction jobs.

Both Hak Kim, 27, and Joshua Suwa, 34, could see their lives cut short because of breathing in the dust at work.

Mr Suwa, a former high-level soccer player, developed silicosis and scleroderma after working as a stonemason for nine years, five of them in Sydney and four in Melbourne.

He is desperate to stick around to see his two boys – Hudson, 5, and Lenny, 2 – he has with partner Erin grow up.

But he is worried his silicosis will worsen, as happens with most lung diseases.

‘It’s tough, I don’t know how I’m going to progress with it. I’m an extremely positive person so I’ll keep believing and hoping and praying.

‘I have to be around as long as possible for my two kids.’

Mr Kim is on the waiting list for a lung transplant, after inhaling dust every day while working on Melbourne demolition sites between the ages of 20 and 24. 

The $1.6million Mr Kim received in compensation, because he was never given breathing protection, is of little consolation he said

The $1.6million Mr Kim received in compensation, because he was never given breathing protection, is of little consolation he said

He was awarded $1.6million in compensation as he was not instructed to use a breathing mask on the job but says that’s little consolation. 

‘I cried when they told me I’d need a transplant. It was hard to take,’ Mr Kim said.

The operation is a last resort, and even after surgery the patient has a high risk of infection and organ rejection.

Mr Kim loved playing soccer and went fishing every weekend, but now he cannot walk far, or grip a fishing rod. He needs oxygen to deal with constant breathing difficulties.

Co-author, of the 2021 Curtin University study, epidemiologist Lin Fritschi, said banning engineered stone would prevent almost hundreds of lung cancers and thousands of silicosis cases.

She said the health impacts of silica dust could also be reduced by various methods.

These include mandatory wet-cutting or on-tool dust extraction and the consistent use of high-quality respiratory protection.

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.

Silicosis involves silica dust slowly scarring the lungs. The disease typically affects tradesmen

Silicosis involves silica dust slowly scarring the lungs. The disease typically affects tradesmen

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.

 

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