Questions and answers
- About respirable crystalline silica and engineered stone
- About Safe Work Australia
- Decision RIS: Background
- Decision RIS: Impact analysis and recommendations
- Decision RIS: Consultation
- Decision RIS: Next steps
- I work with engineered stone, or previously did…
- Information for businesses
- Information for consumers and the general public
About crystalline silica and engineered stone
Silica, also called silicon dioxide, is a naturally occurring and widely abundant mineral that forms the major component of most rocks and soils. There are non-crystalline and crystalline forms of silicon dioxide. The most common type of crystalline silica is quartz. When stone, rock or manufactured materials containing crystalline silica undergo mechanical processes such as crushing, cutting, drilling, grinding, sawing or polishing, they can generate very small sized crystalline silica dust, known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS), that can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause irreversible lung damage.
Silicosis is a serious, irreversible lung disease that causes permanent disability and can be fatal. RCS can be breathed deep into the lungs and causes inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue that reduces the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen. Damage to the lungs from RCS and symptoms of disease may not appear for many years but can also develop after a short exposure to high levels of RCS.
Between 2010-11 and 2021-22, there were 551 accepted workers’ compensation claims for silicosis in jurisdictions covered by the model WHS laws.
The model WHS Regulations define engineered stone as an artificial product that contains crystalline silica and is created by combining natural stone materials with other chemical constituents (such as water, resins or pigments) and undergoes a process to become hardened. This definition excludes concrete and cement products; bricks, pavers and other similar blocks; ceramic and porcelain wall and floor tiles; roof tiles; grout, mortar and render; and plasterboard.
About Safe Work Australia
Safe Work Australia is a national policy body with Members representing the Commonwealth, states and territories, as well as workers and employers. Our Members are supported by a small Commonwealth agency. We work to achieve healthier, safer and more productive workplaces through improvements to WHS and workers’ compensation arrangements.
As a national policy body, we are not a regulator and do not enforce WHS laws or have a role in relation to compliance. The Commonwealth, states and territories regulate and enforce WHS laws and administer workers’ compensation schemes in their jurisdictions.
Safe Work Australia has undertaken significant work since 2018 to improve WHS arrangements to prevent silicosis and silica-related diseases, including:
- prohibiting the uncontrolled processing of engineered stone products through amendments to the model WHS Regulations
- reducing the workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica
- publishing a model Code of Practice: Managing the risks of respirable crystalline silica from engineered stone in the workplace
- developing guidance for working with silica and silica-related products (including translated versions), and
- undertaking an occupational lung diseases education and awareness campaign.
On 28 February 2023, WHS ministers agreed to Safe Work Australia’s recommendations to address workplace exposure to respirable crystalline silica through national awareness and behaviour change initiatives, and further regulation of high-risk crystalline silica processes for all materials across all industries (including engineered stone). Safe Work Australia is currently working to implement these recommendations. WHS ministers also requested Safe Work Australia undertake further analysis and consultation on the impacts of a prohibition on the use of engineered stone. Safe Work Australia provided the Decision RIS: Prohibition on the use of engineered stone to WHS Ministers on 16 August 2023 for consideration and decision.
Since 2011, there have been robust and consistent WHS laws in place requiring persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs), including designers, importers, suppliers and manufacturers, to eliminate or minimise the risks to workers and others from respirable crystalline silica so far as is reasonably practicable, including that generated from engineered stone. Under the model WHS laws, workers are also required to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and ensure that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of others.
In response to the increased cases of silicosis in engineered stone workers, the model WHS Regulations have been amended to clarify that uncontrolled processing of engineered stone is not permitted, as this would be inconsistent with eliminating or minimising risks so far as is reasonably practicable. The workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica has also been reduced from 0.1 mg/m3 to 0.05 mg/m3 (8-hour time weighted average).
Safe Work Australia will continue to lead development of national WHS policy including developing and maintaining the model WHS laws. The new role of ASEA will depend on the final terms of the amending legislation.
Decision RIS: Background
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 to support 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 is informed by stakeholder feedback on a consultation paper released by the Agency in March 2023. It was also informed by an independent expert review of scientific evidence regarding the risk profile of working with engineered stone undertaken by the University of Adelaide, 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 natural 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.
Decision RIS: 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 has recommended a prohibition on the use of all engineered stone, irrespective of crystalline silica content.
Safe Work Australia has also recommended the introduction of a licensing scheme to ensure appropriate controls are in place to protect worker health when engineered stone already in place needs to be removed, repaired or modified.
The decision to prohibit the use of some or all engineered stone is a matter for WHS ministers.
Engineered stone poses an unacceptable risk to workers, which is why a prohibition on the use of engineered stone is recommended.
Expert analysis shows that dust from engineered stone poses unique hazards, and there is no evidence that lower silica engineered stone (e.g. 40% or 10%) is safer to work with.
There has also been ongoing non-compliance with WHS laws by persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) and workers in the engineered stone industry, despite significant education and awareness-raising activities.
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.
The devastating impact that exposure to respirable crystalline silica from engineered stone can have on workers means it is not appropriate to delay action. As a result, a transitional period for industry beyond that required to draft changes to the model WHS Regulations and implement in jurisdictions was not recommended.
However, whether there is a transitional period is ultimately a decision for WHS ministers.
A prohibition on the use of all engineered stone is estimated to result in costs to persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) of $139.9 million. This represents $6.9 million in costs to PCBUs whose engineered stone fabrication businesses may be directly affected; and $133 million attributed to the licensing framework for legacy products, impacting other industry PCBUs who, in the course of their primary activities, may work with engineered stone that has previously been installed. For example, electrical, plumbing or demolition work.
A prohibition on the use of all engineered stone is estimated to result in costs to government of $108.2 million. These costs fall in to 2 groups:
- $107.5 million to implement a licensing framework for work with legacy products (i.e. engineered stone products already installed), and
- $0.7 million to provide income and vocational training support for displaced workers.
A prohibition on the use of all engineered stone is estimated to result in costs to workers of $3.1 million, including:
- lost income of $2.9 million, and
- retraining costs of $0.2 million.
Should the government agree to a complete prohibition on the use of engineered stone, 51 cases of silicosis would need to be averted over 10 years to offset the costs. This represents less than 10% of the 551 accepted workers’ compensation claims for silicosis between 2010-11 and 2021-22, in jurisdictions covered by the model WHS laws.
Removing engineered stone as a source of respirable crystalline silica from the Australian market 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 exempt work with 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 with engineered stone.
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.
Decision RIS: Consultation
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.
Decision RIS: Next steps
Safe Work Australia provided the Decision RIS to Commonwealth, state and territory WHS ministers on 16 August 2023 for their consideration.
Commonwealth, state and territory WHS ministers have agreed to meet in coming months to discuss the Decision RIS and come to an agreement on their preferred option in the Decision RIS. Communiqués from past meetings can be found on the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations website.
Once WHS ministers have agreed on a preferred option, Safe Work Australia will work to implement that decision, including amendments to the model WHS Regulations, if relevant. For the amendments to the model WHS Regulations to apply, each jurisdiction will need to implement them separately through amendments to their jurisdictional WHS regulations.
Safe Work Australia will develop guidance materials to ensure persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) and workers understand how amendments to the model WHS Regulations will affect them and help them prepare. We encourage PCBUs and workers to stay up to date with information from Safe Work Australia and their WHS regulator.
The timing of a decision by WHS ministers on a prohibition on the use of engineered stone is a matter for ministers. Information on meetings of WHS ministers can be found on the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations website.
Safe Work Australia did not recommend a timeline in the Decision RIS. This will be for WHS ministers to determine, should they decide to prohibit the use of engineered stone.
Safe Work Australia has responsibility for the model WHS laws and will implement changes to that legislation. However, those changes will need to be implemented in jurisdictional WHS laws to take effect. Questions about implementation, compliance and enforcement of jurisdictional WHS laws are a matter for the jurisdictions.
I work with engineered stone, or previously did…
If you work with engineered stone, you may be exposed to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) at work. Your employer must protect you, and anyone else in the workplace, from risks to your health and safety, such as those from exposure to RCS. They must put in place control measures to remove, or reduce, exposure to RCS. Control measures can include wet cutting, on-tool dust removal, local exhaust ventilation, and breathing protection.
As a worker, you have a responsibility to protect yourself and other people around you at work. This includes complying with reasonable work health and safety instructions, and co-operating with reasonable policies and procedures to protect you from breathing in dust including by wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). You must be given the appropriate PPE (including respiratory protective equipment) to work with engineered stone and your employer must give you information and instructions on how to use and wear your PPE properly.
Talk to your employer about what they are doing to manage the risks of RCS at your work. If you are worried about a serious risk to your health and safety, you have the right to stop or refuse to carry out work. If you do this, you must inform your employer as soon as you can.
If after raising a safety concern with your manager or supervisor, you are still concerned about a risk to your health and safety you should speak to your health and safety representative (HSR) or contact the WHS regulator in your jurisdiction for advice. If you are a member of a trade union or employee association, they may also be able to help you.
Workers in occupations with a high risk of exposure to respirable crystalline silica, such as those working with engineered stone, must undergo health monitoring with a registered medical practitioner experienced in health monitoring. Safe Work Australia recommends annual health monitoring for engineered stone workers.
A person conducting a business or undertaking must provide health monitoring to workers if there is a significant risk to health or a significant risk of exposure to respirable crystalline silica, such as when working with engineered stone. You should talk to your health and safety representative (HSR), or, if you do not have an HSR, your manager or employer, about arranging health monitoring. If you do not feel comfortable approaching your employer, or they refuse to provide health monitoring, you should contact the WHS regulator in your jurisdiction for advice.
Information for businesses
A person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) must eliminate risks arising from exposure to respirable crystalline silica or, if that is not reasonably practicable, minimise the risks so far as is reasonably practicable to workers and other persons at their workplace.
Managing risks and worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica can be achieved by selecting and implementing measures using the hierarchy of controls:
- substitution, such as choosing a benchtop product that does not contain crystalline silica
- isolation of the hazard – using principles of safe work design to isolate workers and others from tasks that generate dust. This may include using enclosures and automation of dust generating tasks
- engineering controls that minimise the risk of exposure to generated dust, for example, using water suppression (wet cutting), tools with dust collection attachments, or local exhaust ventilation
- administrative controls, including good housekeeping policies, shift rotations and modifying cutting sequences
- personal protective equipment including appropriate respiratory protective equipment (generally a minimum of a P2 efficiency half face respirator).
Under the model WHS Regulations, a PCBU must not process, or direct or allow workers to process, engineered stone unless the processing is controlled. Any cutting, grinding, trimming, sanding, abrasive polishing and drilling of engineered stones using power tools or other mechanical plants, must be controlled using one of the following:
- a water suppression (wet cutting) system
- an on-tool dust extraction system, or
- local exhaust ventilation system.
In addition, all workers who process engineered stone must be provided with and wear respiratory protective equipment. If you require information about specific WHS requirements for working with engineered stone, refer to the model Code of Practice: Managing the risks of respirable crystalline silica from engineered stone in the workplace, go to the Crystalline silica and silicosis web page, or contact the WHS regulator in your jurisdiction for advice.
Information for consumers and the general public
Available evidence suggests engineered stone products do not pose a safety risk after installation in your home or workplace, as long as they remain undisturbed. Health and safety risks may arise if silica dust is generated during any modification, repair or removal work.
It is important that you don’t undertake DIY work with engineered stone. You should contact a qualified tradesperson if any modifications to engineered stone already in place in your house or workplace, such as benchtops or splashbacks, are required. The tradesperson must use control measures to minimise the generation of dust and must wear respiratory protection.