The Federal Government’s work, health, and safety agency has been asked to investigate the possibility of a nationwide ban on crystalline silica. The substance can cause irreversible lung damage to construction workers and labourers who come into contact with it over long periods of time. The decision was made following a meeting of Australia’s work, health, and safety ministers on Tuesday.
First, what is silica?
Crystalline silica is a naturally occurring mineral used to make engineered stone for kitchen and bathroom benchtops. Some kitchen benchtops can have up to 98% silica, though others have considerably less. Silica products pose no risk once they have been fixed into an area. This means that people who use a kitchen benchtop containing silica in their home won’t be at risk once it has been fixed into place. However, workers who come into contact with silica are at risk of developing significant health issues. This is because silica products create tiny dust particles, which if inhaled at unsafe levels over many years, can cause a long-term lung disease called silicosis. There is no cure for silicosis, and it can cause death.
How many workers could be impacted?
A study published by Curtin University last year estimated that up to 103,000 cases of silicosis will result from current workplace exposure to silica. It also found that over 10,000 Australians will develop lung cancer as a result of their current exposure to silica dust in the workplace. The study estimated over 500,000 Australian workers are currently exposed to crystalline silica. About 47% of these workers are believed to be experiencing high-level exposure.
A national dust disease taskforce established by the Federal Government recommended immediate action to address new cases of silicosis in 2021 but didn’t recommend an immediate ban. The construction workers’ union has said they will ban the use of silica by July 2024, if it isn’t already banned by the government.
Safe Work Australia was tasked with investigating future silica regulations on Tuesday and is expected to hand down a report documenting its findings in the next six months. The ministers agreed to meet again in six months to discuss the next steps but will meet earlier if the Safe Work report is complete before their next scheduled meeting.
The ministers unanimously agreed to pursue new regulations, including potential bans, on the use of silica in the workplace. Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said the work done by Fair Work Australia around a potential ban on silica products would centre on where “the line would be drawn” between products deemed to be safe or unsafe for use.