“Engineered stone is killing workers. This is the asbestos of the 2020s.”
Zach Smith, Incoming National Secretary of the CFMEU, doesn’t mince his words.
And with good reason – over half a million Australian workers are currently exposed to silica dust every day on the job.
More than 10,000 of these people are predicted to be diagnosed with silicosis as the result.
Less than eight years to live
Silica dust is so fine that it is 100 times smaller than a grain of sand. But with each breath, you risk death.
A Curtin University report predicted that around 10,000 Australians will develop lung cancer in their lifetime due to exposure to silica dust.
The dust is common when working in construction, tunnelling, quarrying, excavating, mining, road construction and some manufacturing processes. It’s produced when cutting engineered stone, as is common when making kitchen benchtops.
Former stonemason Kyle Goodman speaks from experience when he says no future generations should have to be diagnosed with the deadly disease.
“Four and a half years ago, I was given between five and eight years to live,” he said.
“It’s a death sentence. There’s no cure; there’s no treatment.”
The disease does not discriminate, striking workers in their twenties, thirties and forties.
When Joanna McNeill received her silicosis diagnosis, it was a moment of cruel irony.
“I was told you do have silicosis and I had no idea what it was,” McNeill said. She was working as a safety officer for a quarry at the time.
“I ran safety meetings. I ran everything in the toolbox for safety. How did I not know what crystalline silica dust is?” she said.
We have an asbestos ban. Now it’s silica’s turn
Today, asbestos is a dirty word. It was just over 16 years ago that the victims of the lethal fibres had their suffering recognised.
Hundreds of thousands of ordinary working Australians and one fearless union activist brought justice to the company that knowingly endangered thousands of workers’ lives. Asbestos is now banned in Australia and its disposal treated with the utmost seriousness.
But what about silica?
As McNeill points out: you wouldn’t take a job if you knew you’d be working in an area with asbestos. There is no reason silica dust should be treated any differently.
“I think it’s disgusting that we as a first world country are facing another issue as bad, if not worse, than asbestosis,” Goodman says.
Union members led the campaign to end asbestos and will do so again to prevent silica-related deaths.
Unions and health experts are calling for a ban on the manufacturing and processing of engineered stone – a particularly potent source of silica dust – as well as stronger protections from silica dust for all workers.
Silica dust leads to “death sentences” for workers