Silicosis surge prompts more calls for a ban on engineered stone products
Renee and Braden Barnes’ life has changed dramatically since Braden was diagnosed with silicosis. (ABC News: Laura Kewley)
A man who developed silicosis after working with engineered stone products has called for the products to be banned to prevent more people developing the disease.
- New figures show a surge in the number of cases of silicosis
- Silicosis taskforce member says every case of silicosis is evidence of system failure
- NSW accused of failing to respond adequately to the crisis
“There’s no way you can produce a kitchen purely, without having some sort of dust come off the manufacturing process,” Braden Barnes told 7.30.
“Even when it is used wet (and) turns to sludge, the sludge dries, gets on your boots and turns back to powder.”
Mr Barnes is just one of hundreds of workers across the country who have developed the lung disease while trying to meet consumers’ demand for stone in their kitchens and bathrooms.
New figures obtained by 7.30 show a surge in new cases.
There are now 260 cases across Australia, with 166 in Queensland, 61 in Victoria, 23 in NSW, 5 in Tasmania, 3 in WA, and 1 each in the ACT and SA.
In SA there are also 66 cases where workers need specialist follow-up.
The Queensland case numbers have more than tripled since November, when the state had 53 diagnosed cases.
The industry insists the cutting process can be done safely.
‘If I knew it was silicosis I would have quit’
Braden Barnes and his family were much more active before he contracted silicosis. (ABC News)
Braden Barnes is just 34, but is too sick to work.
For more than a decade he worked as an installer of engineered stone kitchen benchtops, not realising he was exposing himself to the deadly silica dust.
In 2014 a doctor misdiagnosed his silicosis, so he kept working.
“If I knew it was silicosis, I would have got out of the industry there and then,” he said.
“But I kept going for a couple of years because we were starting to build a house, we just had a newborn.”
The silicosis crisis was first identified in Queensland 12 months ago, and the impact of the preventable disease continues to worsen.
“I know six of my friends that are being diagnosed,” Mr Barnes said.
“I know a few more that are in denial.
“They’ve built their life around the money they earn, so they don’t even want to get checked.”
‘Some will die within 12 months’
Dr Graeme Edwards demonstrates the type of mask that should be used in stone cutting. (ABC News: Michael Atkin)
Engineered stone has silica levels of up to 90 per cent, and when it is cut and polished fine dust particles are released.
“It gets down into the bottom of the lung and that triggers a scarring reaction in the lung,” Dr Graeme Edwards, occupational physician and member of the national taskforce on silicosis and other dust diseases, told 7.30.
“Essentially it clogs up and distorts the lung so it can’t work. I’m aware of two deaths, one in Queensland and one in NSW. I’m aware of at least two transplants. And I know that there are more people being lined up for potential lung transplants.”
Dr Edwards warned that the problem is only going to get bigger.
“We’re talking in the hundreds, some will die within 12 months, some will die within five years,” he said.
“Most will be terminal in that five to 10, 15-year mark.”
In Queensland, there have been urgent audits of stonemason businesses to make sure unsafe work practices stop, and so far almost 600 improvement and prohibition notices have been issued.
Dr Edwards says this photo taken at Marble and Granite Specialists in October 2018 shows a concerning level of dust. (Supplied: Workplace Health and Safety Queensland)
7.30 has exclusively obtained audits of two Gold Coast businesses under right to information laws.
In 2018, an inspector took photographs of dust inside a workshop run by Marble and Granite Specialists despite them using wet cutting techniques.
Dr Edwards said the pictures showed a concerning level of dust.
“They show a surface contamination in the background, in the footprints, on the forklift, that means there was past exposure to high levels of dust,” he said.
Dr Edwards believes that “while there may not have been dust activity at the time the photos were taken, clearly there was activity in the recent past which tells us there was substantial exposure in this particular workplace”.
The inspector issued Marble and Granite Specialists with an improvement notice after finding the vacuum cleaner in use was unsuitable for controlling the health risk associated with silica dust, and a prohibition notice to stop workers using compressed air hoses to remove dust from their clothes.
At another stonemason business called Coomera Stone Worx, an inspector issued a prohibition notice after he found workers with beards and facial hair were being placed at risk because they were cutting, grinding and polishing engineered stone benchtops with masks that had not been tested to ensure they fitted properly.
The inspector also issued an improvement notice due to finding inadequate cleaning to manage silica dust, and said it was being done with an unsuitable vacuum cleaner.
7.30 contacted Marble and Granite Specialists and Coomera Stone Worx and sent them a list of questions.
Coomera Stone Worx did not respond. Marble and Granite Specialists did not answer the questions but maintained it was the cleanest workplace in South-East Queensland.
I want to quit but ‘who’s going to pay my bills?’
Stoneworker Andrew Klohk only had a lung check-up after 32 years in the industry. (ABC News: Alex McDonald)
Sydney stonemason Andrew Klohk has been in the industry for more than 30 years.
In January this year, for the first time in his career, he had his lungs checked and was found to have silicosis.
“I was dumbfounded,” he told 7.30.
“So many questions went through my head.
“Where has Safe Work been all this time? This, after 32 years, is my first lung examination.”
Mr Klohk can’t afford to quit work.
“My doctors have recommended that I leave the industry. But who’s going to pay my bills?” he said.
Mr Klohk is frightened his condition will get worse and wants more support while he retrains for a different job, as they do in other states.
“They’ve only offered my travel to my doctors, they’ve offered to pay for my doctors’ fees. Beyond that, no,” he said.
“They’ve offered to come and clean my house a couple of times.”
In NSW that is the responsibility of a body called icare.
In a statement, icare said: “If a worker identified with silicosis continues to work in the same industry, this should be discussed with their physician. Where a worker wishes to leave the industry, icare is able to support the worker financially and offer vocational training to help with re-entry into the workforce.”
Dr Edwards believes the scale of the national problem could be much worse because information about the situation in NSW is unclear.
“We still don’t have any real visibility about what is happening in NSW,” he said.
“We know that there is end stage disease in NSW but we just don’t know the quantity of cases.”
Dr Edwards said the industry had not been monitored effectively by government regulators.
“Every single case of silicosis is prima facie evidence of system failure,” Dr Edwards said.
“There was legislation already in existence to manage it but, clearly, it failed the workers of Australia.”
Thirty-nine prohibition notices issued in NSW
Andrew Gavrielatos defends NSW Safe Work’s record in trying to eliminate bad practices in the industry. (ABC News)
Lawyer Jonathan Walsh has given evidence to a NSW parliamentary inquiry calling for health screening of all workers, the removal of caps on medical expenses and a legal ban on dry cutting.
“Our call is to have a national response to this crisis, which invariably affects workers in every state, not just Queensland and Victoria,” he told 7.30.
“So the NSW response has been lacking in that regard.”
Andrew Gavrielatos, the NSW Safe Work Executive Director, said his organisation has taken strong action.
“I believe we have probably the most comprehensive response in the country in terms of awareness raising, education, compliance activity, and making sure that people do the right thing,” he told 7.30.
Part of that is visiting the actual manufacturing premises.
“Of the 246 sites that we visited, we’ve issued 600 notices,” he told 7.30.
“Thirty-nine of those notices were prohibition notices.
“Prohibition notices, once they’re issued, are never lifted. That means we’re banning a particular work practice, what we’re banning is dry cutting of stone.”
Mr Gavrielatos stressed that with adequate protection the cutting of engineered stone products should be safe.
“You can prevent your exposure if you ensure that you wear the proper equipment, if employers ensure that there is proper ventilation.”
Does it take a ‘couple of people to die’ to shake things up?
Despite the risk associated with stonecutting, Andrew Klohk continues to work because he can’t afford to retrain for a different job. (ABC News)
Mr Klohk is not convinced the NSW government is doing enough.
“New South Wales is playing catch up to the rest of the country, yet again,” he said.
“What’s it take? For another couple of people to die before it’s kind of really going to shake some people up?”
And Braden Barnes has an anxious wait to see whether his disease develops.
“I don’t even know what the next five years could bring, let alone the next 10 years,” he said.
“The lung transplant may be on the cards.
“That’s the scariest thing, not knowing and living day by day and just hope I don’t get worse.”