Australian stone companies told to stop dry cutting engineered quartz

Concerns about silica dust in processing engineered quartz grow. The products have an even higher concentration of silica than sandstone or granite.

The Queensland Government in Australia has issued an urgent safety warning for stone processors to stop dry cutting engineered quartz. The warning follows claims by 26 workers for compensation for silicosis.

Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said any employer dry cutting quartz should stop immediately (read Australian website report here). She said: “Enforcement action will be taken against any employer who fails to adequately protect its workers.

“Due to the high levels of silica in engineered stone which can be breathed in as dust when cut dry, it is absolutely paramount that this warning is taken seriously. Last night I was advised by senior officials from Workplace Health & Safety Queensland (WHSQ) and WorkCover Queensland that there has been a sudden spike in the number of confirmed cases of silicosis for workers in this industry. Silicosis is an aggressive form of pneumoconiosis – a debilitating respiratory disease – which can be fatal."

She said WHSQ had audited 10 engineered stone worktop manufacturers and uncovered disturbing unsafe work practices, including dry cutting of stone, poor ventilation of work areas and a lack of personal protection equipment.

Ms Grace said that at least six of the confirmed cases of silicosis had Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF), which is the end stage of the disease leading to death. "My heart goes out to all affected workers and their families,” said Ms Grace. She is encouraging those who work in the industry, or have done so previoulsy, to be screened for the disease, which WorkCover Queensland will pay for. 

In December, WHSQ deployed 22 specially-trained inspectors to audit all the remaining stone processors In Queensland. “We are working towards developing the necessary explicit regulations to prohibit dry cutting of stone, along with a Code of Practice for the Queensland industry, which will be finalised as soon as possible," said Ms Grace. “I have also written to the Federal Minister, Kelly O’Dwyer, to alert the Federal Government of the seriousness of this issue and the need for a national response.”

Ms Grace said there was no need for homeowners with engineered stone benchtops to be concerned as the risk only arises when the product is cut, grinded or polished.

Silicosis among stone processors is also recognised as a problem in the UK. You can read a first hand account from an English mason who has since died of it and watch an HSE interview with a sufferer here.

If you want to see why the Australians are concerned about silicosis and the reality of having the disease, watch the video below.