Calls are mounting to ban a product commonly installed in Aussie kitchens after heartbreaking stories emerged of young tradies suffering deadly lung diseases.
Construction union, the CFMEU, is demanding the government ban engineered stone benchtops containing silica on Australian work sites.
Materials containing high silica levels have been linked with the incurable lung disease silicosis as well as cancer.
Tradies as young as 25 are being diagnosed with the disease as a result of having contact with the mineral in work such as stonemasonry, bricklaying and demolition.
The CFMEU has pledged to ban the product on its work sites from July 2024 but union boss Zach Smith wants wider action taken sooner.
‘We would hope the federal government would act and state and territory governments would act before we get to that point of banning, and they would institute their own ban on the engineering, manufacture and importation of engineered stone,’ he told the National Press Club.
Calls have mounted for a nationwide ban on engineered stone benchtops – after young tradies were left riddled with deadly lung diseases. Pictured is Joshua Suwa who was left ill after inhaling dust at work
Hak Kim (pictured centre, in baseball cap) had to undergo a lung transplant, after inhaling dust every day while working on Melbourne demolition sites between the ages of 20 and 24
‘We know this product is killing workers.
‘One quarter of that whole sector is contracting some form of deadly dust disease which is, in all but the rarest of cases, a life sentence.’
Hak Kim, 28, and Joshua Suwa, 35, are a pair of tradies who were once living active lives before they were struck down with illnesses after breathing in dust at work.
Mr Kim this year underwent a lung transplant after inhaling dust every day while working on Melbourne demolition sites between the ages of 20 and 24.
‘I cried when they told me I’d need a transplant,’ Mr Kim told Daily Mail Australia last year.
The operation is seen as a last resort, and even after surgery the patient has a high risk of infection and organ rejection.
‘It was hard to take,’ he said.
Mr Kim loved playing soccer and went fishing every weekend, but he was soon unable to walk far, or grip a fishing rod. He also required oxygen to deal with constant breathing difficulties.
He says his health has improved with the lung transplant.
Meanwhile, Mr Suwa developed silicosis and scleroderma after working as a stonemason for nine years, five of them in Sydney and four in Melbourne.
Mr Suwa played soccer to a high level in western Sydney and developed the disease after working as a stonemason producing and cutting engineered stone for kitchen renovations between 2015 and 2019.
‘Breathing is difficult, even as I’m talking now, I have to be sitting down. I cant walk and talk at the same time,’ he told Daily Mail Australia last year.
Engineered stone is a cheaper alternative to granite and marble and is commonly used in kitchens renovations in Australia
It was included in a federal task force report in 2021 which said health and safety regulations aren’t properly protecting workers from dust exposure.
Mr Suwa played soccer to a high level in western Sydney and developed the disease after working as a stonemason producing and cutting engineered stone for kitchen renovations between 2015 and 2019. (Pictured, Mr Suwa and his partner Erin and their boys)
Mr Suwa told Daily Mail Australia he was was given a paper mask to wear on sites but his boss didn’t want employees to use more than one mask a week – no matter how caked in dust they got.
Mr Kim said he was given just safety glasses and gloves for demolition work.
‘I just feel sad about it really,’ he said.
‘A young person like me, a young person with no idea what’s going on and one day I got sick and then my life is broken.’
Safe Work Australia is looking at what silica-based products would need to be banned and how it would be enforced, following a meeting of state and federal ministers.
A national registry will be established for workplace respiratory diseases.
Mr Smith said the response to banning engineered stone benchtops could take lessons from how asbestos products were outlawed decades ago.
‘What is often forgotten about the campaign around asbestos eradication was that trade unions and building unions banned the products on site, banned work with those products before governments acted,’ he said.
‘We may very well be in a similar situation here with the ban on engineered stone.
‘We have made it abundantly clear that we will not sit back and wait for governments to act on engineered stone.’
The risks of exposure to silica dust on Australian building sites
Silica dust is seen as so insidiously dangerous today that some safety requirements say that masks won’t protect the wearer if they have a beard.
In order to work, the mask needs to seal tightly. That’s how fine silica dust grains are – 100 times smaller than sand.
Once they get into the lungs, they block pores, leading to a disease called silicosis.
It often precedes lung cancer.
A federal task force last year said health and safety regulations aren’t properly protecting workers from exposure to linked to the deadly lung disease silicosis.
The Cancer Council told Daily Mail Australia that 600,000 Australians are exposed to silica dust in the workplace every year.
New computer modelling done by Curtin University reveals 10,000 people are predicted to develop lung cancer in their lifetime from being exposed to silica dust and that 103,000 will develop silicosis.
Perhaps the major requirement on sites today when cutting stone and brick is that a wet saw must be used.
But like all safety requirements, they only work if rigidly applied.
Some sites, some foremen and even some workers still don’t take them seriously enough.