In October 2023, Australian state and national workplace ministers convened to deliberate on a national ban for engineered stone slabs. The sweeping proposal came as a response to widespread reports of silicosis cases directly linked to occupational silica dust exposure.
With extensive support from union leaders and politicians, the prohibition would be the first of its kind and will likely have international ramifications. Although two states and a handful of regional ministers requested a temporary extension to finalize their policy preferences, the country appears poised to prioritize workplace safety over corporate concerns.
August Safe Work Australia Report Calls for Prohibition on Artificial Stone Countertops
The most recent impetus for the revived national debate over silicosis regulations was an official Safe Work Australia report published in August 2023. After extensive research and analysis of the regulatory landscape and the dangers of engineered stone slabs, the report argues that only a complete ban would suffice to guarantee worker safety.
Artificial stone products in Australia enjoyed a surge in popularity for their cheapness and quality in the 1990s. Commonly used for kitchen countertops or benches, engineered stone slabs are composed of quartz and a binding resin, and contain high levels of silica. When ground, cut, polished, and installed, they release respirable crystalline silica (RCS). The particulates in this hazardous dust can be over 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, increasing the likelihood of inhalation.
Long-term RCS overexposure frequently results in a highly dangerous and incurable disease known as silicosis. Often lethal and always debilitating, the progressive condition has overwhelmed Australian engineered stone workers.
Despite state and national regulations, Safe Work Australia argues, “there is no toxicological evidence of a ‘safe’ threshold of crystalline silica content [in engineered stone]”. Consequently, in order to ensure the safety and wellbeing of artificial stone workers, the report suggests three options:
- Complete engineered stone ban
- Prohibition of engineered stone with silica content upwards of 40%
- Accreditation process for businesses and employers using regulated silica stone slabs
Caesarstone’s Media Campaign Draws Parallels to Asbestos Controversy
The largest and most successful engineered stone manufacturer in Australia, Caesarstone, recoiled at the latest challenge to its chief product. When it became clear that there was sufficient support in state and federal governments to ban engineered stone, it undertook an extensive advertising campaign to thwart the initiative.
Caesarstone’s primary objection was the uncompromising nature of the prohibition. The artificial stone titan argued that regulations diminishing permissible silica content in engineered slabs were more effective.
The campaign outraged government officials and union leaders alike. For example, the New South Wales Treasurer, Daniel Mookhey, claimed that the full-page advertisements and television slots were a “disgrace” and amounted to “misinformation and misdirection.”
Others detected disturbing similarities to the deceptive advocacy of asbestos-producer James Hardie, which railed against regulations for the toxic substance in the early 2000s. Surprisingly, in the face of silicosis litigation and the threat of a nationwide ban on engineered stone, Caesarstone has said that it intends to remain in Australia while observing its legal obligations.
National and State Ministers Agree to Resolve Debate Before 2024
The main goal for government officials appears to be a national ban on engineered stone slabs, rather than an independent and piecemeal introduction of bans throughout Australia’s 6 states and interior and exterior territories.
However, devising a specific policy to which all state governments will assent requires extensive deliberations, negotiations, and time. Many lobbyists and activists had hoped that a coalition of cabinet ministers would conclude the debate by early November, but a last minute recess in late October delayed a final decision.
Now, the Minister of Industrial Relations for Queensland, Grace Grace, has signaled a tentative resumption of discussions in December. The hiatus angered prominent pro-ban advocates, including Graeme Edwards. The former member of Australia’s National Dust Disease Taskforce even alleged that governmental reticence was “tantamount to industrial manslaughter”.
Nevertheless, state and national officials recognize the urgency of the situation, especially after the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) stated that it would act to neutralize engineered stone by July 2024 in the absence of an adequate government response.
American Response to Recent Surge in Occupational Silicosis Diagnoses
Australia’s tense and complex policy debate over a national artificial stone ban is analogous to growing concerns in other countries about the resurgence of occupational silicosis. In fact, the international and interconnected nature of the scrutiny distinguishes it from other regulatory disputes.
For instance, an Israeli silicosis documentary was partially responsible for heightened liability concerns within Caesarstone, which summarily placed additional safety warning labels on engineered stone slabs. As the Australian silicosis discussion grew, American agencies turned to alarming studies from other countries to justify new workplace regulations.
Consequently, Australia’s response to engineered stone production may greatly impact similar discussions in the United States, which has experienced a series of artificial countertop developments itself, including:
OSHA Unveils New Silica Exposure Regulations
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is tasked with protecting workers through the implementation and enforcement of safety regulations. Given the correlation between the rise in popularity of artificial stone countertops and widespread silicosis diagnoses, the agency promulgated new silica standards in 2016.
The regulations established a silica dust permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 μg/m^3 over the course of an eight-hour workday and an action level of 25 μg/m^3 over the same period. The agency assumed enforcement powers in September 2017 for the construction industry and June 2018 for general and maritime businesses.
In addition to observing the recent federal standards, manufacturers and employers are expected to measure silica levels in the workplace, and OSHA requires that they direct endangered workers to credentialed physicians. Alongside air quality tests, the agency also encourages the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to mitigate overexposure.
Silicosis Litigation Targets Manufacturers in Engineered Stone Industry
In the United States, formerly lax workplace regulations have directly caused thousands of silicosis cases among workers in the engineered stone countertop industry. Consequently, major companies are facing a growing number of occupational silicosis lawsuits.
The silica dust exposure litigation alleges that manufacturers and employers in the artificial stone countertop industry failed both to inform workers of the risks they incurred from silica exposure and to mitigate the threat in the workplace. As a result of their negligence, scores of uninformed workers were placed in harm’s way, and countless more found their lives and livelihoods jeopardized.
Common Damages in Silicosis Lawsuits
Workers diagnosed with silicosis have reported a variety of dramatic changes in their daily lives, ranging from restricted movement and low energy to loss of time with loved ones and growing financial precarity. The occupational disease is incurable and the costs associated with treatment can quickly amass and often exceed private insurance coverage and workers’ comp provisions.
Consequently, plaintiffs in the ongoing silicosis litigation are in pursuit of financial compensation in the form of economic and non-economic damages addressing:
- Medical expenses – past, present, and future
- Lost wages and income
- Pain and suffering
- Mental anguish
- Decreased quality of life
Contact an Experienced Silicosis Lawyer for Help with Your Occupational Injury Claim
Lawsuit Legal News' associated experienced silicosis lawyers are on standby to safeguard your rights as you tend to your health. In a free consultation, our silicosis lawyers can explain the legal intricacies of filing a silicosis lawsuit and the potential compensation to which you may be entitled. Given the state-specific statutes of limitation which restrict eligibility, the sooner you speak with us, the better.
For more information about the complexities of holding engineered stone manufacturers to account, consider contacting us today.