Jul 03, 2023

Silicosis lung disease: Engineered stone dust at benchtop worksites revealed in WorkSafe photos

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WorkSafe has released photos of engineered stone fabricator workshops, which received a prohibition notice after inspections found serious safety issues. This photo was taken in July 2019. WorkSafe declined to identify the business.

Photos from inside workshops where artificial stone is cut show tools, benches and floors covered in dust, which, when breathed in, can cause incurable lung disease.

The man-made stone that dominates New Zealand’s kitchen and bathroom benchtop market poses a big risk for stonemasons if it’s not handled carefully.

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Workers should be protected by strict safety measures, including only cutting the stone when it is wet, to stop dust being created, and powerful ventilation systems.

The daily limit for respirable crystalline silica dust is less than what could fit on the head of a pin (and will soon be greatly reduced). Workers are at risk if more than this is breathed in over an eight hour period.

Unsafe working conditions have been common - WorkSafe inspectors have visited the 147 businesses known to fabricate engineered stone (also called artificial stone), and issued improvement notices to 129 of them.

Breaches at 26 businesses were so serious as to warrant a prohibition notice, which shuts down operations until an inspector is satisfied proper changes are made.

Details about those cases obtained under the Official Information Act reveal one fabricator, BK Kitchens Limited, in Auckland’s Avondale, received two prohibition notices.

The first was issued in August 2019 for “inadequate controls to manage silica dust exposure”. It was lifted 10 days later.

Another notice was issued on October 1, 2020, because workers “were exposed to the risk of respirable crystalline silica while operating powered hand tools without water suppression or dust extraction systems.” It wasn’t lifted until December 1, 2020.

A staff member told the Weekend Herald the business changed hands last year, and the issues pre-dated the new ownership.

Following another OIA request, WorkSafe released photos of worksites that received the most recent prohibition notices, showing significant amounts of dust and slurry.

The photos were taken in 2019 and 2020. WorkSafe declined to identify the workplaces, saying this “could inhibit the supply of future information”.

Prolonged exposure to dust created when engineered stone is dry-cut can cause silicosis, a sometimes fatal disease that scars the lungs and makes it difficult to take in oxygen. Absorbed dust can cause other diseases, including lung cancer.

Tradies overseas have died horrible deaths. Others still alive - including Kiwis - are disabled by severe shortness of breath. Other common silicosis symptoms (which don’t appear until after disease develops) include a persistent cough, fatigue and weight loss.

Silica is found in stone, rock, sand, clay and many building materials, but dust from engineered stone is more dangerous, because the man-made products contain up to 95 per cent silica, compared to 2 to 50 per cent in natural stones.

Sick stonemasons going public - some of whom later died - prompted Australian authorities to move towards banning high-silica engineered stone.

WorkSafe’s own advisory group recommended such a ban be considered in October 2019, the Weekend Herald has confirmed.

Asked about this, WorkSafe said: “The merit of a ban or restriction on the import or use of engineered stone will be among matters covered in the report on regulatory options due with the Minister on November 30 2023.”

That will now go to Carmel Sepuloni, who recently replaced Michael Wood as Workplace Relations and Safety Minister, following Wood’s failure to properly disclose shareholdings.

In a statement, Sepuloni said WorkSafe will revisit high-risk businesses, and if there are problems “use all enforcement actions available, including investigation and considering prosecution where it is warranted”.

Only 140 people have lodged claims for assessment of accelerated silicosis, as of February this year. Sixteen of these claims were accepted by ACC, including for probable and confirmed silicosis.

Dr Alexandra Muthu, a leading occupational physician, believes there are around 1000 current and former stonemasons at risk.

There should be an official registry of people with workplace silica dust exposure, Muthu said, and licensing of importers and fabricators.

The photos obtained by the Weekend Herald appeared to show serious failures, Muthu said.

“They seem to be a short time after a call from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians for the government to educate employers and workers.

“This shows how bad it was, despite the ‘warnings’ from the manufacturer, and, therefore, how likely it is that we will find disease at a similar rate to Australia and Israel, when we look properly.”

(Around one in four workers in Australia who have been assessed have silicosis.)

From August, New Zealand’s workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica will be lowered to 0.025mg/m3. (The particles that enter the lungs are so tiny as to be invisible. They are present along with visible dust, but can also be in the air when no dust is apparent to the naked eye.)

Major importers are moving to sell only new varieties that have lower silica content, in most cases less than 40 per cent.

International manufacturers have faced lawsuits overseas from sick and dying stonemasons, but say engineered stone is entirely safe in its installed form, and presents a risk to workers only if handled incorrectly and without adequate safety.

Muthu, who helped alert the NZ Government to the problem, said there needs to be a national occupational health service, to monitor for emerging workplace disease, and ensure systems are in place to respond quickly and thoroughly.

A ban on high-silica engineered stone should be considered, she said, but the risks from lower-silica products aren’t yet well understood, so safety measures remain vital.

A Weekend Herald investigation published in May revealed gaps in oversight of the industry, with confidential ministerial briefings warning that “significant unmanaged risks to worker health” had been found at some worksites, with even better performing businesses needing repeat visits to ensure problems were fixed.

If you can help us shed light on this issue, contact investigative reporter Nicholas Jones by email: [email protected]

We will not publish your name or identify you as a source unless you want us to.

Nicholas Jones is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald. He won the best individual investigation and best social issues reporter categories at the 2023 Voyager Media Awards.

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