A Decision Regulation Impact Statement (Decision RIS) provides a balanced assessment of available policy options and their likely impact, including analysing the costs and benefits. A RIS assesses potential costs and benefits of major decisions, such as the nature and extent of the impact on businesses, community organisations and individuals. It is an important part of evidence-based policy development and supports government decision making.
The Decision RIS: Prohibition on the use of engineered stone (Prohibition Decision RIS) provides an analysis of the impact of options for a prohibition on the use of engineered stone under the model WHS laws. It builds on the evidence and analysis previously considered by WHS ministers in, and should be read in conjunction with, the Decision Regulation Impact Statement: Managing the risks of respirable crystalline silica at work (Silica Decision RIS).
As recommend by Safe Work Australia in the Silica Decision RIS, WHS ministers asked Safe Work Australia to undertake further analysis and consultation on a prohibition of the use of engineered stone under the model WHS laws. Ministers noted this should include:
- consideration of silica content levels and other risk factors
- a national licensing system for work with products that are not subject to a ban, and
- a national licensing system for work with legacy products.
The Prohibition Decision RIS was informed by stakeholder feedback on a consultation paper released by the Agency in March 2023. It was also informed by an independent expert review by the University of Adelaide of scientific evidence on the risks of working with engineered stone, and an economic impact analysis undertaken by independent consultants, Ernst & Young Pty Ltd (EY).
The impact analysis requirements for decisions taken by intergovernmental decision-making bodies are set out in the Regulatory Impact Analysis Guide for Ministers’ Meetings and National Standard Setting Bodies June 2023. The Office of Impact Analysis (OIA) confirmed in August 2023 that the Decision RIS met the requirements set out in this Guide.
While silicosis cases have been reported in workers using different types of silica-containing materials across a range of industries, a disproportionate number of silicosis cases are in engineered stone workers. In these workers (compared to workers exposed to silica from other sources), silicosis is associated with a shorter duration of exposure to silica, faster disease progression and higher mortality. One of the key reasons for this is the nature of engineered stone and the dust it produces:
- Engineered stone often has significantly higher crystalline silica content, resulting in the generation of dust containing more respirable crystalline silica when processed, compared to natural stone.
- Engineered stone is easier to process than natural stone, meaning a less skilled workforce can be used to process more stone in one shift, leading to higher exposure to dust.
- Respirable crystalline silica generated from engineered stone has different physical and chemical properties to that produced from natural stone, including a greater proportion of very small (nanoscale) particles of crystalline silica which can penetrate deeper into the lungs.
- Other components of engineered stone, such as resins, metals, amorphous silica, and pigments, may contribute to the toxic effects of engineered stone dust, either alone or by exacerbating the effects of respirable crystalline silica.
Silicosis and silica-related diseases pose an unacceptable health risk to workers. There are significant financial and non-financial costs associated with being diagnosed with silicosis and/or a silica-related disease, including significant physical and emotional harm, reduced ability to work, reduced quality of life and premature death of workers. There are also significant costs to the public health system, including for diagnosis, treatment and disease management.
To date, persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs), workers and regulators have failed to ensure the health and safety of all workers working with engineered stone.
The Decision RIS recommends urgent government intervention, due to the disproportionate number of silicosis cases in engineered stone workers, the younger age of diagnosis of silicosis and silica-related diseases in engineered stone workers, and the impacts on these workers, their families and communities.
Impact Analysis and Recommendations
The Decision RIS considered 3 options for a prohibition on the use of engineered stone under the model WHS laws:
- Option 1: Prohibition on the use of all engineered stone
- Option 2: Prohibition on the use of engineered stone containing 40% or more crystalline silica
- Option 3: As for option 2, with an accompanying licensing scheme for persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) working with engineered stone containing less than 40% crystalline silica.
All 3 options included a licensing framework for PCBUs who undertake certain exempt work, including removal, repair and minor modifications of engineered stone already installed.
Safe Work Australia recommended a prohibition on the use of all engineered stone, irrespective of crystalline silica content. Repairs, minor modification, removal and disposal of engineered stone products installed prior to the prohibition will not be subject to the prohibition. Safe Work Australia also recommended the introduction of a licensing framework to ensure appropriate controls are in place to protect worker health when engineered stone already in place needs to be removed, repaired or modified.
All options, including maintaining the status quo (i.e. no prohibition on the use of engineered stone), were considered in the context of the risk engineered stone poses to workers, the nature of the engineered stone industry, consultation feedback, an economic impact analysis and an expert review of available evidence on the risks of working with engineered stone.
The recommendation for a prohibition is based on the following:
- Engineered stone workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica are significantly over-represented in silicosis cases. Engineered stone workers are being diagnosed with silicosis at a much younger age than workers from other industries.
- Engineered stone is physically and chemically different to natural stone. The high levels of respirable crystalline silica generated by working with engineered stone, as well as the differing properties of this respirable crystalline silica, are likely to contribute to more rapid and severe disease.
- There is no toxicological evidence of a ‘safe’ threshold of crystalline silica content in engineered stone, or that other chemicals found in engineered stone do not pose a health risk to workers.
- Silicosis and silica-related diseases are preventable. However, a persistent lack of compliance with, and enforcement of, the obligations imposed under WHS laws across the engineered stone industry at all levels have not protected workers from the health risks associated with respirable crystalline silica.
There is no scientific evidence to support a ‘safe’ threshold of crystalline silica in engineered stone. Further, the risks posed by materials used in place of crystalline silica in lower silica engineered stone are largely unknown.
The Decision RIS considered a prohibition on the use of engineered stone containing 40% or more crystalline silica but did not recommend this option as there is no evidence of a ‘safe’ threshold of crystalline silica content in engineered stone.
Permitting work with lower silica engineered stone may create an incorrect perception that these products are ‘safe’ when there is no evidence to support this. Further, it could inadvertently result in greater non-compliance with WHS laws.
Given this, a precautionary approach to prohibit the use of all engineered stone was considered the most appropriate policy response.
Removing engineered stone as a source of respirable crystalline silica in Australian workplaces is expected to lead to a range of long-term benefits including reduced illness and death, increased quality of life for workers, and avoided health system costs and improved workplace productivity. These health benefits for workers would also result in avoided government costs associated with hospitalisations and outpatient care, avoided PCBU costs associated with workers compensation claims and higher insurance premiums, and an increase in productivity in the relevant industry workforce. There are also benefits to workers’ families, friends and communities.
In addition, the licensing framework for repairs, minor modification or removal of engineered stone previously installed will provide visibility to regulators of those PCBUs undertaking this work, and assurance to consumers and workers that PCBUs are appropriately authorised and trained to undertake the permitted work.
A prohibition on the import of engineered stone was out of scope of the Decision RIS as this is a matter for the Commonwealth. The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations is considering the prohibition on importation of engineered stone.
The Decision RIS was informed by a consultation process that ran from March–April 2023. The Agency sought feedback on a consultation paper outlining 3 options. Submissions were accepted via Safe Work Australia’s consultation platform, Engage, from 2 March 2023 to 2 April 2023. Late submissions were also accepted where requested.
The consultation paper asked stakeholders to provide data and evidence to support their preferred options and to inform the impact analysis. Stakeholders were also asked to submit any evidence to support a “threshold” level of crystalline silica below which engineered stone can be worked with safely.
A total of 114 submissions were received from a range of stakeholders, including:
- persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) working with engineered stone (60, including four engineered stone suppliers)
- other PCBUs, including law firms (11)
- industry groups (8)
- professional organisations and peak health bodies (6)
- commonwealth, state and territory government departments and agencies (6)
- unions (5), and
- individuals, including WHS and medical professionals and individuals who work with stone (18).
Consultation on the proposed options showed clear stakeholder support for some form of prohibition (rather than maintaining the status quo), with preferences split across the options proposed. Only 16 of the 114 submissions did not support any of the proposed options.
Unions, professional organisations and peak health bodies supported Option 1 (a prohibition on the use of all engineered stone). Industry groups, while not necessarily supportive of a prohibition of engineered stone, acknowledged there is an issue with silicosis in engineered stone workers. They consider it can be addressed through regulation of high-risk crystalline silica processes previously agreed by WHS ministers (Option 5a in the Silica Decision RIS).
The majority of stakeholders acknowledged there is not currently enough evidence to determine a threshold crystalline silica content at which engineered stone could be worked with without risk (for example, the 40% threshold proposed in Options 2 and 3).
Around half of persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) working with or supplying engineered stone supported Option 3, commenting that a licensing scheme would enhance compliance in the sector.