With the Federal Government introducing a total ban on engineered stone from January 2024, Australian businesses involved in manufacturing and installing the silicosis-causing material have a grace period of about six months to change their practices. For some time the use of engineered stone has raised concerns about liability for the health and safety of employees.

Silicosis is an incurable lung disease caused by tiny particles of silica dust being inhaled while cutting or grinding stone. Engineered stone, popular for kitchen and bathroom benchtops, is especially high in silica content.

The issue gained urgency as forecasts projected that about 10,000 Australians will develop lung cancer as a direct result of inhaling silica dust, according to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners1. It's estimated that over half a million Australian workers are currently exposed to silica dust in their workplace, while a Curtin University study warns that between 83,090 and 103,860 silicosis cases are expected to result from current exposure. The study supports a ban on dry stone processing but also recommends other measures be introduced to reduce health impacts.

Support for businesses in addressing silicosis

The Federal Government has also taken advice from the National Dust Disease Taskforce2, formed in 2019, which has made seven recommendations for regulatory and non-regulatory actions aimed at improving worker health and safety in the short to medium term.

These measures range from strengthening workplace health and safety measures, and prioritising investment in prevention, to improving identification of victims and support and case management, and guidance for establishing a nationwide, cross-jurisdictional governance mechanism to enable coordinated response.

The taskforce has also issued a national guide for medical professionals dealing with workers who have contracted silicosis through exposure to silica dust.

Who can be held responsible when workers develop silicosis?

Workers who develop silicosis as a result of workplace exposure may seek support through workers compensation, but if investigation uncovers unsafe work practices the liability then falls on others, including the directors or owner/s of the business.

The role of duty holders managing the risks of working with engineered stone, as specified in the Safe Work Australia Managing the risks of respirable crystalline silica from engineered stone in the workplace Code of Practice3, may include:

  • business owners
  • business directors and executives
  • designers
  • manufacturers
  • importers
  • suppliers
  • workers
  • other persons in the workplace.

What insurance cover supports business owners whose workers develop silicosis?

Workers compensation policy forms differ on a state-by-state basis but are only permissible to be issued in accordance with relevant regulations.

Historically public liability insurance has not had a specific silica dust exclusion but these are being introduced. This means that businesses will be uninsured for third party claims as a result of exposure to silica dust, such as a claim from a subcontractor employee against a head contractor, a claim from a local resident to a worksite against a subcontractor, etc.

Similarly directors and officers' and management liability insurance policies are likely to change also.

How Gallagher can help businesses involved with silica dust risks

Workers, contractors and employers in sectors from manufacturing, mining, construction and trades who have worked with products containing silica all stand to be affected by silicosis. An experienced insurance broker can help you understand how you need to respond in order to protect yourself, your workers and your business.

For proactive guidance and support our locally focused but nationally resourced Gallagher Workplace Risk management specialists also provide workplace risk advisory services to clients through our dedicated team of consultants.

The Workplace Risk team can also deliver bespoke education and training programs (online or face to face) that improve workforce engagement on the known issues and industry best practice controls.

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