The Australian Financial Review (AFR) is a newspaper written for and about business, so worker safety and health is usually depicted as a nuisance to be addressed only when one absolutely must. However, its coverage of engineered stone products is notably skewed.
Engineered stone manufacturers are, understandably, not happy with Australia’s proposed ban on their silicosis-generating products. Some home builders have also expressed dissatisfaction. They are often ignoring the reason for the ban – the unnecessary deaths of workers – although at least one argument has merit.
In an article by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Caesarstone, the major supplier of engineered stone to Australia, identified what it sees as the real causes of silicosis risks:
The heads of Australian work health and safety authorities have decided to ban engineered stone from the middle of 2024. Some will seed this as a win for the trade union movement ( the unions certainly will), but many occupational health and safety and industrial hygiene professionals have been leading the way in obtaining the research evidence that made this decision such an easy one to make.
Caesarstone Asia Pacific managing director David Cullen told the Australian Financial Review (AFR – paywalled) on October 27, 2023, that:
“A full ban on the use of engineered stone would double the cost of benchtops..”
So? That seems to be enough of a reason to continue to allow the use of a product that is causing a large number of preventable deaths in Australia and elsewhere??!!
A stronger argument may be that the occupational health and safety (OHS) management of the cutting of engineered stone has failed.
“a prohibition on the use of all engineered stone, irrespective of crystalline silica content, to protect the health and safety of workers.”
So that should be it. No more engineered stone products for use in Australia. Apparently, that decision is difficult to make even though the top occupational health and safety (OHS) advisory body in Australia recommends prohibition. OHS has always had an uncomfortable mix of morality, law and politics. Engineered stone and its inherent silicosis risks are a good illustration of the tensions between these three elements.
One supplier of synthetic stone products to Australia, Cosentino, is in the mainstream media after an appearance on a popular television home renovations show on the Nine Network, The Block. Several occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals and organisations have raised concerns about how the product was discussed and presented on a recent episode. The best coverage of this matter has been by an ABC television program, MediaWatch.
MediaWatch revealed the importance of listening to how dangerous products are described and how the guidance of OHS Regulators can be interpteed or manipulated.
As with most political party conferences, occupational health and safety (OHS) is a fringe issue. OHS or safety is sometimes mentioned in the big political speeches but often as an afterthought or obligatory mention that is rarely explored to the extent it deserves. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) recently held its national conference in Brisbane. Work health and safety was mentioned.
The ALP Conference is not intended to change Australian government policies. Its aim is to review and revise the ALP Party platform; it drops what may be redundant and improves the policy platform’s relevance. The conference may indicate party member concerns to the parliamentary members, but the government’s positions are for the parliamentary members to decide.
It should come as no surprise that the ALP has again refrained from banning the import and use of engineered stone even though the silicosis risks are well-established.