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Engineered Stone Ban to Protect Workers from Silica Dust Exposure: The Global Milestone

Engineered Stone Ban to Protect Workers from Silica Dust Exposure: The Global Milestone

Mar 19th 2024

Engineered Stone Ban to Protect Workers from Silica Dust Exposure: The Global Milestone

Australia has banned the use, supply, and manufacture of engineered stone due to the release of fine silica dust that can cause deadly diseases and cancers when cut. State and federal workplace ministers have decided, upon a recommendation from Australia's workplace safety watchdog, Safe Work Australia, to ban the use of all engineered stone. This measure aims to safeguard the health and safety of workers, exposed to crystalline silica content.

The nationwide ban will take effect from July 1, 2024, with allowances for the removal, repair, minor alterations, or disposal of engineered stone installed before this date, and for products containing silica levels below 1%. This engineered stone prohibition pertains to the production, distribution, processing, and installation of engineered stone, excluding actions such as removal, repair, disposal, or minor modifications.

What is Engineered Stone?

Engineered stone, also referred to as quartz or artificial stone, is a composite material made from crushed stone bound together by an adhesive. It is commonly used for kitchen countertops, bathroom vanities, and flooring due to its durability and aesthetic appeal. However, studies have shown that engineered stone contains high levels of silica.

Silica dust, also called respirable crystalline silica (RCS), is a type of mineral from natural materials like sand, stone, and rock. When these materials are cut, drilled, or ground down into fine dust, they can release silica dust into the air. It can go deep into the lungs, causing lasting harm.

The different types of engineered stones include:

  • Quartz: The most popular type of engineered stone, composed of crushed quartz bound with resin, offering durability and a wide range of colours and patterns
  • Granite: Engineered granite is formed by heat and pressure, providing a durable and versatile option for various applications
  • Caesarstone: A brand of engineered stone known for its durability and uniform colours
  • Essastone: Another type of engineered stone that offers affordability, durability, and a variety of colour options
  • Litho stone: An engineered stone material that combines natural and artificial elements to provide resistance against scratches, stains, and heat
  • Quantum Quartz: A type of engineered stone made up of 93% natural quartz along with bonding materials, offering durability and low maintenance requirements

Health Risks Associated with Silica Dust Exposure

The danger of engineered stone comes primarily from its high content of crystalline silica. Long-term effects of exposure to crystalline silica include:

  • Silicosis: A debilitating and often fatal lung disease characterised by inflammation and scarring of lung tissue, leading to reduced lung function and difficulty breathing
    1. Acute silicosis: Rapid onset within weeks or months following very high exposure levels
    2. Accelerated silicosis: Onset within 5–10 years following high exposure levels
    3. Chronic silicosis: Onset after ten or more years of exposure to lower levels of silica
  • Increased risk of lung cancer
  • Pulmonary tuberculosis, particularly in areas where tuberculosis is endemic
  • Airway diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Autoimmune diseases

The most common industries where workers are exposed to crystalline silica include:

  • Construction Industry: Workers in construction are exposed to crystalline silica when cutting, grinding, drilling, or crushing materials like concrete, bricks, tiles, and mortar
  • Mining Industry: Activities such as sand mining can release large amounts of crystalline silica into the air, posing a risk to exposed workers
  • Manufacturing Industry: Production processes involving materials like concrete, cement-based products, rocks, sands, and clays can generate silica dust
  • Foundries: Moulds for molten metals poured at foundries can contain silica, leading to exposure during casting processes
  • Glassmaking Industry: Silica is a common material used in glassmaking processes

Man making vertical cut with electric hand saw during align marble kitchen countertop at construction site. marble cutting with grinding cutter

Understanding the Prohibition on Engineered Stone

Why is engineered stone in the spotlight?

Engineered stone is the focus of discussions regarding occupational safety due to its widespread use in various industries, especially construction. Analysis shows that no evidence that engineered stone with reduced silica content (e.g. 40% or 10%) is any safer to handle.

Alternatives to Engineered Stone

Now that the ban on engineered stone is upcoming, it is important to explore alternative options. Some potential alternatives include:

1. Natural Stone: As mentioned, natural stones are a sustainable and durable option for construction projects. They are safer as they do not emit harmful chemicals and have a longer lifespan, making them a cost-effective option.

2. Recycled Materials: Using recycled materials such as glass or concrete can also be a sustainable alternative to engineered stone. These materials can be repurposed from waste and reduce the carbon footprint of construction projects.

3. Terrazzo: This is a composite material made from chips of natural stones, glass or other materials set in concrete or resin. It offers a similar aesthetic to engineered stone but with more environmentally friendly sourcing practices.

4. Solid Surface: Made from acrylics and minerals, solid surface materials are durable, non-porous, and easy to maintain. They are also customisable in terms of colour and design options.

5. Porcelain Slabs: Porcelain slabs are a lightweight, durable and sustainable option for countertops. They are made from natural materials such as clay and sand and can be recycled at the end of their lifespan.

Engineered Stone Prohibitions Impact

This ban will have various implications in different industries. They include:

  • Disruption in the Market: The ban will disrupt the market for engineered stone products, impacting industries that rely on these materials for construction projects such as kitchen benchtops, flooring, and other surfaces.
  • Shift Towards Alternative Materials: With the ban in place, there will likely be a shift towards alternative materials such as natural stone or composite materials, which may come at a higher cost for consumers.
  • Improved Worker Safety: One of the main reasons for the ban is to improve worker safety. By removing the potential exposure to silica dust from engineered stone products, workers' health can be better protected from developing silicosis or other respiratory illnesses. This will not only benefit current workers but also future generations who may enter these industries
  • Impact on Home Remodelling: Home remodelling projects that depend on engineered stone benchtops will require alternative solutions, potentially leading to higher costs and longer renovation times
  • Economic Growth in Natural Stone Industry: The natural stone industry is anticipated to experience significant economic growth as the demand for natural stones increases in response to the ban on engineered stone
  • Environmental Sustainability: Natural stones are considered a sustainable option for the construction sector due to their durability and environmentally friendly sourcing practices, contributing to environmental protection efforts

handyman cut round holes for electrical outlets in marble countertop for the kitchen using hand drill

Global Initiatives

Australia has taken a significant step by becoming the first country to ban engineered stone. This decision comes in light of health concerns associated with crystalline silica exposure, which has led to a concerning increase in silicosis cases among workers who handle the material. While this proactive approach by Australia is the first of its kind, we can hope more countries will follow suit to protect the health and well-being of workers in the construction industry.

How about the engineered stone installed before the ban date?

With the ban on engineered stone in Australia, there are implications for existing installations of engineered stone. Homeowners with engineered stone products need not worry if they plan to leave them in place. However, those intending to remove or replace engineered stone products should be aware of new regulations. Some state governments now require individuals involved in the removal or demolition of engineered stone to be licensed.

Safe Work Australia is also set to create a national framework to ensure safety for those handling engineered stone products installed before the ban. This initiative will offer guidance for businesses and workers on the impact of the WHS Regulations amendments, aiding them in adapting to the changes.

Can I still work with engineered stone until the prohibition takes effect?

Until the ban on engineered stone is enforced, workers and businesses are permitted to engage with work on engineered stone under regulated conditions. Implement preventive measures for reducing exposure to crystalline silica that include:

Engineering Controls

  • Use wet methods for cutting, drilling, grinding, or crushing materials containing silica to suppress dust.
  • Implement local exhaust ventilation with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to capture dust at the source

Administrative Controls

  • Limit the time workers spend in areas with high silica dust levels.
  • Rotate workers to reduce individual exposure levels

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):

  • Provide workers with respiratory protection such as N95 respirators or higher.
  • Use protective clothing to prevent silica dust from contaminating clothes and skin

Hygiene Practices:

  • Prohibit eating, drinking, or smoking in dusty areas.
  • Wash hands and face before eating, drinking, or smoking outside dusty areas

Tools for ensuring worker safety infographic | safetydocs by safetyculture

Tools for Ensuring Worker Safety

Australian Silica Dust Regulations

Australian regulations concerning silica dust are strict and designed to protect workers' health. It is critical for employers to understand and follow these regulations, as exposure to silica dust can cause serious diseases like silicosis. Here are important considerations to ensure safety in industries handling silica-containing materials:

Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations and Codes of Practice

It's mandatory for employers to adhere to relevant WHS regulations and specific Codes of Practice for managing silica dust. These provide comprehensive guidelines on risk assessment, control measures, worker training, and health monitoring. You can find relevant information on the Safe Work Australia website and websites of your state or territory's work safety regulator.

Safe Work Procedures

Develop detailed safe work procedures specifically for work involving silica. These should outline hazard identification, wet methods for dust suppression, ventilation, appropriate PPE for the level of exposure, and emergency procedures.

Worker Training

Mandatory silica awareness training is required for specific occupations in certain territories (e.g., the ACT). Even if not mandated, all workers exposed to silica need thorough training on hazards, safety procedures, PPE use, and what to do in emergencies.

Health Monitoring

Australian WHS regulations require health monitoring for workers at significant risk of silica exposure. This includes health questionnaires, lung function tests, and potentially other medical assessments.

Safety Management Systems

Management systems in the workplace include procedures for identifying and assessing exposure risks, implementing control measures, providing training and education for workers, and conducting regular air monitoring to ensure that exposure levels stay within safe limits.

Risk Assessment

A risk assessment should be conducted to determine the level of exposure to silica dust in a specific workplace. This involves evaluating the tasks and activities that may generate airborne silica particles, as well as identifying potential sources of contamination. There are templates available that can assist in conducting a thorough risk assessment, and it is recommended to consult with a safety professional for guidance.

Silica-Related Products for Workplace Safety

There are a variety of products available to help reduce or eliminate exposure to silica dust in the workplace. SafetyDocs by SafetyCulture offers comprehensive safety documents that include templates for risk management and control measures, training materials, and management plans. These documents can be customised to fit the specific needs of a workplace and provide guidance on how to minimise exposure to silica dust.

You can begin by utilising the following templates to help assess and control risks related to silica exposure:

With SafetyDocs, you can worry no more about the safety of your workers and ensure that all necessary precautions are taken to reduce silica dust exposure. Prevent long-term health issues such as silicosis, lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases by implementing proper safety measures.

Stay compliant with the latest regulations and protect your workers. Don't wait until it's too late – take action now and prioritise the health and safety of your team. Contact us today to learn more about our templates and how we can support your workplace safety efforts.

Our team of experts is dedicated to providing accurate and informative content. Craig Cruickshank, our senior HSEQ advisor at SafetyDocs by SafetyCulture has reviewed this blog post to ensure the highest level of quality.

Learn more about Craig's work on LinkedIn for more industry insights.

Available for instant download and supplied in fully editable MS Word format for use in your business.

Please note that the above information is provided as a comment only and should not be relied on as professional, legal or financial advice.

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