Silicosis, caused by dust particles from making stone benchtops, can kill. What’s being done?
TV programs and tightening credit are prompting more Australians to renovate their homes while evidence mounts that kitchen upgrades can have deadly consequences for tradesmen.
Silica from stone benchtops is responsible for serious and sometimes fatal health problems for the workers who cut and install these products.
Here’s what you need to know if you’re thinking about adding one to your home.
What’s the problem with silica? Crystalline silica has been implicated in the deaths of numerous stonemasons who have worked on benchtops. The law firm Slater and Gordon announced in March it was in the early stages of mounting a national class action against manufacturers, as authorities brace for a health crisis that could be worse than asbestos.
Silica is found in stone, rock, sand, gravel, clay, bricks, tiles and concrete, and in artificial stone, natural stone and some plastic benchtops.
Silica dust is 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, and exposure can lead to lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease.
WorkCover Queensland has accepted 164 worker compensation claims for silicosis from stonemasons in the benchtop industry. WorkSafe Victoria received 28 claims for silica-related conditions in 2018, and 15 workers have died from the disease since 1985. SafeWork NSW has had 12 silicosis claims. Tasmania has had five cases.
In 2011, about 587,000 Australians were exposed to silica dust at work and an estimated 5,758 will develop lung cancer over the course of their lives, according to the Cancer Council.
What should customers ask prospective kitchen suppliers?
Paul Sutton, the Victorian Trades Hall Council occupational health and safety expert, urged consumers to be proactive in asking kitchen benchtop suppliers about their safety measures for stonemasons.
Suppliers should be managing the silica dust with local exhaust ventilation, water suppression and dust collection attachments, and ensuring workers have appropriate personal protective equipment including respiratory masks.
Sutton said techniques involving wet cutting were preferable to dry cutting.
All states and territories other than the ACT have banned uncontrolled dry cutting, in which the dust is not controlled by water or extraction.
Canberra designer Stephen Collins said his family was conscious of the occupational health and safety issue when they started researching kitchen designs, having read about silicosis cases in the media.
“It’s all very nice to have a granite benchtop … but if someone is potentially going to die in 20 years because of your granite benchtop, then that’s not a good reason to have one,” Collins told Guardian Australia.
Collins toured the Granite Transformations factory in Goulburn to satisfy himself that the company was looking after workers’ safety.
He said the tradies who installed the family’s benchtops were “completely paranoid about safety”.
“Everyone on the site on the day was wearing a face mask, not just a surgical mask, but a mask with breather [valves].”
He said the tradie cutting the stone benchtop in his garage was wearing a Hazmat suit, and an industrial-strength extraction fan was in action.
Which materials are safer?
“One thing consumers could do is ensure they order natural stone, not artificial ones [because of the lower silica content],” Sutton told Guardian Australia. “That’s a massive difference to the worker in terms of exposure levels.”
Artificial stone benchtops can contain more than 90% silica, whereas natural stones such as granite contain between 25% and 40%.
However, natural stone benchtops tend to be a bit more expensive compared to engineered stone benchtops.
Engineered stone benchtops range from $400 to $600 a square metre, excluding installation.
Marble is a more expensive option – $800 for a square metre but up to $3000 after installation.
Granite can range from $700 to $1,700 per square metre, including installation.
What are authorities doing about silicosis?
Safe Work Australia, the national body that develops work health and safety policies, has decided to cut the silica dust exposure limit from 0.1 milligrams per cubic metre over an eight-hour shift to 0.05 milligrams.
But the new limit won’t come in for three years and has to be ratified by state and territory governments.
The Cancer Council of Australia, unions and Victorian government wanted the limit to be set at 0.02 milligrams per cubic metre, which would make the nation a world leader. But business groups had been arguing for the status quo.
Victorian Michael Nolan, 33, was diagnosed with silicosis in March after cutting stone benchtops for a decade, and has a life expectancy of only five to 10 years if he does not get a lung transplant soon.
“What they really need to look at is banning the products at 98% silica and having some sort of limit [on silica content],” Nolan said. “We may as well be making benchtops out of asbestos.”
The engineered stone is manufactured in countries such as Italy and Israel. Raw stone slabs are imported into Australia, where workers cut, grind and polish the stone.
Documents obtained by the Guardian show the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, last year requested that Safe Work Australia consider putting in place “importation controls on engineered stone products”.
Hunt wrote he was “extremely troubled by the recent surge in cases of silicosis”.
The government’s new $5m national dust diseases task force began work this month on a prevention, early identification, control and management plan. It is working on getting a national dust disease register up and running by the end of the year.
Jonathan Walsh, the principal lawyer for dust diseases at the Maurice Blackburn law firm, said there’s merit in considering an importation ban similar to asbestos.
“I think the market forces are going to be innovative and products will be created in order to replace those silica-based products that are coming in,” Walsh said.
How is the industry reacting?
The Australian Stone Advisory Association, an industry group which covers 70% of manufacturers, insists that calls for import controls and moratoriums on engineered stone are unnecessary and the focus should be on safe work practices.
“Silicosis is preventable – what we are seeing now is the re-emergence of an old disease reflecting inadequate work health and safety practices with a comparatively new material,” the association said.
“Work practices that allow the safe use of engineered stone include wet cutting, the use of local exhaust ventilation, on-tool extraction and respirators to ensure the protection of worker health.”
Stone benchtop manufacturers are keen to emphasise their products are completely safe once installed.
GLEN Aplin bin compound has been forcibly shut after traces of asbestos were uncovered at the facility.
Four samples of suspected Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) were tested and returned a positive result on Monday after the material was detected by a Southern Downs Regional Council officer on Friday.
The facility will be closed for at least two weeks while SDRC takes precautions to remedy the site.
Accredited personnel have been engaged to come in, collect and safely dispose of the material.
Residents who use the compound will be directed to either Stanthorpe or Ballandean for waste disposal while the facility is closed. Southern Downs mayor Tracy Dobie said people had been put at risk by the illegal dumping.
“Incorrectly disposing of asbestos is not only illegal but totally irresponsible. We all know the risks associated with exposure to asbestos,” Cr Dobie said.
“I’d like to remind everyone in the community that asbestos is a hazardous waste and it puts community members, contractors and council officers who use the facility at risk.
“If you are dealing with material which contains asbestos you have a legal responsibility to do the right thing and to dispose of the material properly; to be aware of material which may contain asbestos, how to handle it properly and where and how to dispose of it correctly.
“Some people may simply be unaware of asbestos in or around the home. If you are unsure, take precautions – contact council or someone who specialises in asbestos removal.”
Disposing of asbestos is prohibited at all SDRC waste management facilities, except for Warwick, where asbestos can be disposed of properly by appointment and for a small fee.
Stanthorpe Waste Facility is currently not accepting ACM until a new dedicated disposal bin is installed at the site.
The illegal dumping at Glen Aplin comes just weeks after asbestos containing material was identified at Collegians Junior Rugby League Club in Warwick as a result of illegal dumping at Allora Waste Transfer Facility.
Following on from that discovery, soil testing confirmed the presence of bonded asbestos at five other sites around the Southern Downs.
Workplace Health and Safety Queensland confirmed traces had been found at the Collegians club, as well as Warwick Central School.
A WHSQ spokesman said four other sites were located in the Southern Downs, but declined to reveal further details.
Cr Dobie said illegal dumping is not only illegal but comes at a cost to ratepayers.
THE Glen Aplin bin compound has been closed after traces of asbestos were discovered.
Southern Downs Regional Council say some illegal dumping of asbestos containing material has occurred, forcing them to shut the facility.
Accredited specialists will be brought in to clean up the hazardous material.
The clean up will come at a cost to ratepayers and come as an inconvenience to Glen Aplin residents.
It comes a few weeks after several sites around Warwick and the wider Southern Downs tested positive for small amounts of asbestos debris.
A $40 million lawsuit claims that managers of a Southwest Portland apartment complex endangered employees by exposing them to asbestos even though construction crews had warned that the cancer-causing fibers were present.
The suit was filed Monday by two former employees of Tandem Property Management. They claim they were fired in retaliation for knowing about the alleged asbestos “cover-up” at the Commons at Sylvan Highlands apartments.
The company and its president, Thomas Clarey, didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.
The complex is at 1380 S.W. 66th Ave., and spans multiple buildings. It’s unclear how many people live there. A lawyer for the plaintiffs said he doesn’t think residents have been notified that they also may have been exposed to asbestos.
The lawsuit claims that after crews remodeling five vacant apartment units discovered what appeared to be asbestos in May, the company’s president was furious. He visited the site, “yelling that there was no asbestos and that they all needed to get back to work,” the suit says.
Three of the workers were removed from the job and within a few days were fired because management thought “they were ‘loose cannons’ that might call the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about the potential asbestos,” the suit says.
In June, the suit says, management directed a new crew to carry debris through the building’s halls and down its elevator. After the new crew discovered what appeared to be asbestos, someone on the crew had a sample tested and the results came back as containing the tiny, dangerous fibers, the lawsuit alleges.
The crew notified management, but the next day, management told two employees to remove the asbestos-laden sheetrock without proper protective gear or training, the suit claims.
Michael Fuller, a Portland attorney who filed the lawsuit, represents Khataun Thompson, an apartment groundskeeper who was asked to work on one of the renovation teams. The suit alleges that management removed him from the project and ultimately fired him in July because of his knowledge and because of his race. Thompson is black.
Thompson filed an OSHA complaint about the asbestos, the suit states. An OSHA spokesman couldn’t immediately be reached for more information.
Fuller also is representing Thompson’s fiancee, Alyssa DeWeese, a leasing agent who contends she was fired in July as retaliation after she found out about the asbestos.
Asbestos has long been a known carcinogen believed to be so dangerous that even brief exposures can develop into life-threatening diseases decades later. Public pressure has mounted in recent years to tighten controls, and government regulations outline specific procedures for properly removing asbestos. The process can be time-consuming and expensive.
Government officials take the proper handling of asbestos so seriously that in recent years, at least two Oregon businessmen have been convicted of crimes for their mishandling of asbestos removal projects.
In 2012, developer Daniel Desler was convicted for negligently releasing asbestos into the air as he tried to redevelop an old sawmill in Sweet Home into a housing development.
In 2015, real estate agent Bill Gaffney was convicted of recklessly endangering others after hiring untrained day laborers to remove asbestos-laden materials from a Southeast house he was remodeling.
The Fiji National Provident Fund advises that asbestos-containing material has been identified at the Kwong Tiy Plaza building in Marks Street, Suva.
The asbestos-containing material was found in the fascia board and roofing insulation by the National Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Service of the Ministry of Employment.
The asbestos identified in the Plaza is well-contained in the building and does not pose any threat to the health and safety of occupants, surrounding stakeholders and the general public.
The Fund acquired the Kwong Tiy Plaza Building in 1994. Built in the early 1980’s, it was common for asbestos to be used in most buildings constructed or renovated at that time.
FNPF acknowledges its obligations as the property owner and is working closely with nominated consultants, asbestos removal contractor and the Ministry of Employment, in line with the Code of Practice for the Safe Removal of Asbestos and international best practices to safely remove the asbestos-containing material.
Air monitoring will be conducted regularly throughout the removal process to ensure that there are no airborne threats to the general public, workplace and the surrounding environment.
The FNPF sees its role as vital in dealing with the matter responsibly and requests the understanding and cooperation of our stakeholders in regards to this matter.
The Oregon Occupational and Safety and Health Division has fined OnTrack $19,350 after employees of the drug addiction recovery organization improperly handled asbestos at an apartment in west Medford.
OSHA inspected the building at 514 Hamilton St. on various dates in May and determined that OnTrack failed to follow proper procedures, provide protective equipment and communicate about the proper handling of asbestos with employees.
The 10 citations issued June 1 resulted from scraping acoustic ceiling without wetting it first and workers not wearing protective gear or disposing of the asbestos properly, including not placing it in air-tight containers.
“While OnTrack workers were renovating a property on Hamilton Street recently, part of the ceiling was mistakenly scraped, which contained asbestos materials,” said Eddie Wallace, OnTrack’s communications director, who responded by email to a request for comment from the Mail Tribune. “OnTrack immediately reported this episode to the DEQ (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality) and engaged in the cleaning and repair of the area according to strict DEQ guidelines.”
Wallace said OnTrack followed all the rules set by DEQ, though he didn’t address questions raised by the OSHA citations.
He said OnTrack employees have received updated training.
Wallace said the email statement would be the only response from his organization related to the OSHA citations.
According to OSHA documents, OnTrack employee Andy Scott filed the complaint, which led to the investigation and four different inspections May 8, May 9, May 11 and May 18.
Scott, a maintenance worker who started working for OnTrack last year, said his supervisors were dismissive when he questioned whether there might be asbestos in the “popcorn” ceiling that was being scraped off by other workers.
“I knew there was a risk there,” said Scott, who said he is seeking whistleblower protection from the Bureau of Labor and Industries. “They were minimizing that there are known carcinogens in there.”
He said he saw two piles of material on the ground, and a section of the ceiling had been scraped off. At this point, Scott said, he didn’t want to go into the apartment because the dust would likely have asbestos in it.
After being dismissed on other occasions, Scott said he contacted OSHA.
Analysis of debris from the apartment showed it contained up to 10 percent chrysotile asbestos.
The apartment on Hamilton was undergoing renovation, though it was locked up Friday and the interior was empty.
In the same building is another apartment, with an OnTrack family living inside.
The OSHA documents describe employees working in the apartment without whole-body clothing, head coverings or gloves. Protective clothing wasn’t required by OnTrack for the employees.
Once a common building material, asbestos was phased out in the 1970s and 1980s after health officials determined the fibers can cause serious and fatal illnesses, such as lung cancer and other diseases.