Kitchen Benchtop & Bar Ideas

Australia bans engineered stone benchtops: what you need to know

The Aussie love affair with engineered stone benchtops is over.

Engineered stone benchtops are phenomenally popular but a national ban on the product is now in place. In a world-first landmark decision back in November 2023, the Australian Commonwealth, state and territory government workplace ministers unanimously agreed to a national ban on the product. This is due to the risk of workers developing a serious lung disease called silicosis.

Often cheaper than natural marble and considered more durable because it’s scratch-resistant and less porous, engineered stone has been a handy alternative benchtop material. This is especially true in hardworking areas such as kitchens and bathrooms. While industry leaders are disappointed with the decision, it seems safe to say that Australia’s love affair with engineered stone is officially over.

When did the ban on engineered stone start?

The prohibition commenced on 1 July 2024. It prevents persons from carrying out work on, or with engineered stone including manufacturing, supplying, processing and installing engineered stone. The ban does not apply to the repair, minor modification, removal or disposal of engineered stone already installed.

Bunnings and IKEA have already removed engineered stone from shelves. Following the announcement of the ban on 14th November 2023, Safe Work Australia has welcomed the decision which it says will save lives and will begin work to draft amendments to Work Health and Safety Regulations prohibiting the use of engineered stone. Safe Work Australia will also develop a national framework to ensure the safety of anyone modifying or removing existing engineered stone products.

What happens to engineered stone products already specified?

Until the commencement of the prohibition of the use of engineered stone, workers and businesses can continue to work with the stone, “in a controlled way” says Safe Work Australia. These methods include protective equipment for workers and the use of a wet cutting system, dust extraction and appropriate ventilation at the work site.

Can we still use imported engineered stone?

Regardless of where engineered stone is manufactured, the fine dust produced when cutting, shaping or polishing the product puts workers at risk of developing silicosis. According to reports the federal government also plans to ban imported engineered stone, however, details are yet to be understood of how this will take effect.

This kitchen has an engineered stone benchtop, the material that has now been banned in Australia.
It’s believed the rise in popularity of engineered stone benchtops with a high silica content has contributed to an increase in cases of silicosis in workers. (Photography: Claire McFerran) (Credit: Photography: Claire McFerran)

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.

This stainless steel benchtop in a butler's pantry is an alternative to engineered stone.
Stainless steel doesn’t contain any silica, so it’s a wise choice if you’re updating your kitchen benchtops. (Photography: Eleanor Byrne) (Credit: Photography: Eleanor Byrne)

Why was the engineered stone ban put in place?

Ministers agreed to the ban and it was announced on 14th December 2023. This came after federal, state and territory ministers asked Safe Work Australia to “scope out” what a ban would look like back in February 2023. Safe Work are now drafting amendments to regulations for workplaces to manage silica dust, and how to safely remove or demolish bench tops in the future. The national construction union, the CFMEU, welcomed the ban on engineered stone. They told the ABC the ban would save lives and, “stop the deadly scourge of silicosis in its tracks”.

In October 2023 Commonwealth, state and territory ministers met and agreed to Safe Work Australia publishing their findings. The Impact Statement provided an analysis of the regulatory impacts of a ban on engineered stone under WHS laws. This includes engineered stone containing 40% or more crystalline silica.

The report’s finding called for more stringent industry regulation and recommended a complete prohibition on the use of engineered stone. A total ban highlights 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.

Is banning engineered stone the answer?

“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. These include wet cutting, using tools that extract dust and wearing high-quality respiratory masks. The issue is that 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.”

This timber kitchen benchtop is an alternative to engineered stone.
Sustainably sourced timber is an excellent alternative material for kitchen benchtops, and adds warmth to the space (bonus). (Photography: Angelita Bonetti) (Credit: Photography: Angelita Bonetti)

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%. 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.

For example:

  • 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.” 

This marble benchtop and splashback is an alternative to engineered stone.
Marble is a low-silica option for kitchen benchtops and splashbacks, as seen in this gorgeous Southern Highlands kitchen. (Photography: Natalie Hunfalvay | Styling: Lisa Burden) (Credit: Photography: Natalie Hunfalvay | Styling: Lisa Burden)

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