Engineered stone benchtops have become phenomenally popular in recent years. Often cheaper than natural marble and considered more durable because it’s scratch-resistant and less porous, engineered stone is a handy alternative in hardworking areas such as the kitchen and bathroom. There’s a smorgasbord of colours and finishes to choose from, including some that are almost indistinguishable from marble. Australia’s fallen in love with engineered stone, let’s be honest.
But the shine is wearing off, as government health and safety ministers are considering banning engineered stone. Workers who cut and file the stone are at increased risk of developing silicosis.
What is silicosis?
Silicosis is a previously rare, long-term lung disease caused by inhaling a fine dust containing silica (also known as respirable crystalline silica, or RCS). Quartz is a type of crystalline silica. Silicosis can be fatal, while exposure to silica dust can also lead to lung cancer and other diseases. Once fabricated and installed in your home, however, engineered stone doesn’t pose any health risks.
Modelling by Curtin University predicts that up to 10,000 Australians will develop lung cancer, and 103,000 with silicosis, in their lifetime after inhaling silica dust. It’s estimated that more than half a million Aussies are currently exposed to it at work. This is why silica dust has been dubbed ‘the new asbestos’.
It’s not just workers that could be affected: although their lifetime exposure will be lower, DIY renovators can now cut and install certain lightweight, silica-containing engineered stone products at home themselves.
Is banning engineered stone the answer?
In February 2023 the Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke, along with state and territory ministers, asked Safe Work Australia to “scope out” what a ban on engineered stone would look like. Safe Work also needed to see what regulation is still needed for workplaces to manage silica dust, and how to safely remove or demolish bench tops in the future. The national construction union, the CFMEU, welcomes a ban on engineered stone, saying it is “killing workers” and mounting marches in major cities calling for urgent action.
In October 2023 Commonwealth, state and territory ministers met and agreed to Safe Work Australia publishing their findings. The Impact Statement provides an analysis of the regulatory impacts of a ban on the use of engineered stone (or engineered stone containing 40% or more crystalline silica) under WHS laws.
The report’s finding calls for more stringent industry regulation and recommends a complete prohibition on the use of engineered stone. A total ban would highlight the serious risk of silicosis posed by working with engineered stone (even those with 40% or more crystalline silica, for which there is no evidence to prove poses less risk to worker health and safety). It also urges persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs), including designers, importers and manufacturers, to eliminate or minimise the risks to workers and others when working with engineered stone.
“Banning engineered stone is absolutely the right decision because we have mountains of scientific evidence that demonstrate the product can’t be worked on safely,” says Kate Cole OAM, an engineer and scientist with a focus on crystalline silica. There are safety measures in place, she concedes, such as wet cutting, using tools that extract dust and wearing high-quality respiratory masks, but they’re not being adhered to by all players.
“Manufactured stone businesses are typically small-to-medium enterprises, or SMEs, with six to 10 workers on average. What we have seen over many years is poor safety standards adopted across the industry. Dry cutting is abominable, but even with wet cutting, the exposure (to silica dust) is still high. A line in the sand must be drawn.”
What are the alternatives to engineered stone?
Silica dust isn’t just found in engineered stone benchtops; it can also be present in natural stone, bricks, tiles, concrete, mortar and some plastic material. It’s the proportion of silica dust content that matters.
Marble, for example, contains 2% silica; granite typically contains 30%; sandstone contains between 70 and 95%; and engineered stone contains up to 97%. If you’re shopping for a new benchtop, choosing a stone with a lower percentage of silica will reduce the risk to workers.
- Cosentino’s engineered stone products Silestone Q10 and Q40 contain less than 10% and 40% crystalline silica, respectively.
- Caesarstone’s Porcelain range also boasts less than 40% silica.
- Timber, stainless steel and laminate contain little or no silica.
“There are lots of other alternatives,” says Kate. “If none of them will work, then there are low-silica products. At the end of the day, not using stone that contains a high amount of quartz is the real message here.”