SA Needs to Protect Workers and Ban Manufactured Stone

Bills, In Parliament, Speeches

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:05): Obtained leave and introduced a bill for an act to amend the Work Health and Safety Act 2012. Read a first time.

Second Reading

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:05): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I rise today to introduce this bill that would ban any work in South Australia that would expose people to crystalline silica dust. This is not the first time I have raised in this place concerns about the consequences of exposure to crystalline silica dust, but over the years we have seen increasing warnings about the consequences of inaction, and we have seen continued inaction or inadequate action on addressing the problem. The Greens therefore seek to put an end to manufactured or engineered stone in South Australia because of its inherent health and safety risks to workers and others involved in its production.

Complete bans on a product can be fiddly to do, of course, at a state level, so we have chosen to put a ban on the exposure of persons to crystalline silica dust. The penalties are in line with category 2 offences under the Work Health and Safety Act 2012. Engineered stone is made from processed quartz, a material containing silica levels as high as 90 per cent, or twice the amount found in granite.

When slabs are cut and finished to fit, large quantities of silica particles are released into the air. Without proper protection, workers inhale this fine crystalline dust, leading to silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer or kidney disease, and alarmingly young workers are being diagnosed with these. Silicosis or scarring of the lungs is a serious, incurable lung disease, and it is caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust. In severe cases, damage to the lungs caused by silicosis can require a lung transplant or may even lead to death.

Estimates hold that 230 people per year develop lung cancer as a result of silica dust exposure at work. There have been warnings that these cases are likely and probably will be far more widespread over the next few years. The standard response to the silicosis epidemic is that workers should use control measures and personal protection. However, there is actually increasing evidence that dust control measures do not reduce the level of silica to non-hazardous levels.

Many companies also use a mixture of dry and wet cutting, particularly when installing the products. As with asbestos, there is simply no way to safely use this material. Manufactured stone is considered so dangerous that the industry that sells it cannot get product liability insurance. We have seen from inquiries interstate—and I do commend the work of my colleague in New South Wales, the former Hon. David Shoebridge, now Senator-elect David Shoebridge of the Greens, for his wonderful work in bringing these issues to light. This is a global first and it cannot be ignored.

If a building product cannot get insurance because of its risk of killing people, then it should not be for sale, it should not be manufactured and people should not be being exposed to it, whether they are the ones actively producing it or being exposed to its by-products and manufacture in other ways. Insurers are looking at the long game, and they can see that manufactured stone is a product that will bring a surge of future litigation. It is time that all politicians took note of that and not just the dollars it will cost but, more importantly, the lives it will take.

There is serious risk of history repeating itself here. We have seen where this leads before with James Hardie and asbestos victims: long drawn-out court battles, more unnecessary suffering and injured workers, and then their families being short-changed on compensation payouts, and of course those payouts never truly compensating for the loss of their loved ones.

Silicosis is already killing workers with young families, affecting people whose entire lives should be ahead of them. According to the CFMEU, nearly one in four engineered stone workers who have been in the industry since 2018 are suffering from silicosis or some other dust-related disease. If one in four workers in any other industry were being poisoned by their work environment, there would be widespread outrage and demands for action. It should be no different for stone and construction workers.

The AWU national secretary, Daniel Walton, has previously warned that approximately 600,000 workers in Australia are currently exposed to silica dust and that we will ‘see a tsunami of silicosis in the coming years and decades if swift preventative, regulatory and compensatory measures are not quickly adopted by governments to protect workers exposed to silica dust’. Manufactured stone is not essential to our economy or to our society. It is currently in fashion, but it has really only existed since the 1990s and we have done quite well without it for a long time. If it is quite literally killing and harming our workers, we can do without it again.

What is worse is that, while the workday for many of those workers might end at 5pm, the ongoing risks and hazards of crystalline silica dust follow them home. They follow them home to their friends, to their families, to anyone they spend time with. Currently, a lot of the risks of silica dust are managed by requiring workers to use wet-cutting techniques when cutting manufactured stone to prevent dust particles becoming airborne. However, the sludge produced when wet cutting does eventually dry, turning back into a powder and becoming airborne once again.

Workers can wear a mask, but if they have facial hair that sticks out of that mask then the dust gets caught in it and the mask is rendered essentially useless. Dust is then dried on their boots, on their clothes, on their protective gear, on everything. You take that dust home with you. You take that dust with you to the shops. You take that dust as you drive around in your car. You take these dust particles that are so tiny that you cannot meaningfully get rid of them once they are airborne or embedded in your clothes or your belongings. You take it with you.

Of course, the risk of being exposed to silica dust and the risk of developing silicosis is not limited just to workers producing or cutting manufactured stone. There are real risks to people living near quarries. For example, I ask the chamber to think back to some of the myriad debates we have had in this place on White Rock Quarry. When the White Rock Quarry expansion was being proposed members of that community voiced their rightful concern and outrage. Their quality of life was being directly impacted by this quarry being in such close proximity to their homes.

There were health concerns, as the quarry produces respirable crystalline silica, or RCS, which is known to cause silicosis. Bear in mind that according to the Cancer Council there are no safe levels of RCS inhalation. What is even more concerning is that, while we have workplace standards for exposure to silica dust, inadequate as they may be, there are actually no standards for people exposed by the nature of where they live. Indeed, the workplace standards of some eight hours of exposure per day are no comfort to residents with non-existent standards, as their exposure is actually 24/7 potentially.

It took 70 years for Australia to ban all forms of asbestos. We need to learn from that disaster and immediately ban artificial stone. We cannot just continue to let Australian workers die so that we can have cheap, fashionable kitchens. We cannot continue to expose workers and residents to respirable silica dust when we know that there are no safe levels of exposure. Control measures have consistently failed. We have to try something else. We have to act. I commend this bill to the council.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon N.J. Centofanti.