AT least four Hunter artificial stone workers have been diagnosed with silicosis in the past few months in what a NSW parliamentary inquiry has been told is a silicosis crisis that regulators are failing to address.
The four cases were uncovered over a number of weeks in June and July after a SafeWork NSW symposium in Newcastle in early 2019, and following the shock death of Gold Coast stonemason Anthony White, 36, of silicosis in March.
But a parliamentary inquiry was told NSW cases uncovered so far might be just the tip of the iceberg because of the widespread use of artificial or manufactured stone in kitchens and bathrooms, the extremely high levels of silica they contain and regulatory and workplace failure to protect workers.
Some NSW MPs and the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union are pushing for manufactured stone products to be banned after a parliamentary inquiry was told current regulations and testing equipment were inadequate, flawed or unable to prevent further silicosis cases.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians used the case of the Hunter artificial stone employees to argue "it is very likely there will be a significant number of cases in NSW", representing "a crisis in the system that protects Australian workers".
College members were aware of "tragic cases" in NSW, including a 47-year-old with five children diagnosed with terminal silicosis and a 56-year-old who required a lung transplant because of severe progressive massive fibrosis.
The "unexpected very low number of cases" reported in NSW reflected a failure to respond to what Australia's chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy has called an epidemic, rather than that there are few cases, the college told the parliamentary inquiry.
SafeWork NSW was strongly criticised at the inquiry last week for a slow response compared with other states, including Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria, and after a "distressing" response from the regulator to a NSW worker's concerns about coughing up blood after more than 20 years in the construction industry.
The man, 39, wrote about the cough where he sometimes "coughed up a clot" in a message on a SafeWork Facebook post about silicosis. But in response SafeWork said "Sorry to hear you're experiencing these symptoms. We recommend seeing your GP for a check-up if you have health concerns".
Greens MP and justice spokesperson David Shoebridge described the message and response as distressing because there was "no reference to icare, free screenings, a link to any information, no follow-up, just 'We recommend seeing your GP for a check-up'", Mr Shoebridge said.
"The guy contacted you to tell you he is coughing up blood after working 22 years in the construction industry. We have had so much evidence about what icare (NSW insurer) can do and about its screenings. How could you not tell this man that? How could you not give him proper guidance?" he said.
While SafeWork inspected 246 manufactured stone fabrication sites, the risks posed to installation and joinery employees and other workers where artificial stone is used is largely unquantified.
In a joint submission Lung Foundation Australia and the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand said it was "unclear what the size of the problem is in NSW with silicosis" because no case study had been initiated, but in Queensland nearly 900 workers in the manufactured stone industry had been screened and more than 150 had been diagnosed with accelerated silicosis.
Legal firm Maurice Blackburn said silica in manufactured stone products introduced to Australia in the early 2000s was more dangerous for workers because cutting artificial stone creates much more respirable silica dust than traditional products such as marble and granite.
"Whereas marble and granite typically contain about 5 and 30 per cent crystalline silica respectively, artificial stone products generally contain more than 90 per cent crystalline silica," Maurice Blackburn said.
"Of particular concern is that many workers in who have developed silicosis as a result of exposure to artificial stone have developed a rarer and more severe subset of the disease known as accelerated silicosis."
Workers as young as 22 have been diagnosed with silicosis, after only four years exposure to artificial stone products, the parliamentary inquiry was told.
CFMMEU secretary Darren Greenfield accused SafeWork NSW and the NSW Government of "treading water on the silicosis crisis".
"Manufactured stone may need to be treated in a manner similar to asbestos, with existing high silica content stone eased out," Mr Greenfield said in a union submission to the inquiry.
The union condemned the industry after SafeWork said it was unable to identify any of 246 NSW manufactured stone fabrication sites as exemplars of best practice.
It said there was no safety data yet available from the installation and joinery sector where potentially thousands of NSW workers are exposed to high silica levels while cutting artificial stone products during kitchen and home installations.
Parliamentary inquiry chair and National MP Niall Blair acknowledged the robust exchanges between SafeWork representatives and MPs at the inquiry last week.
"Part of this committee's job is to make sure that we do not sit here and look back in 20 years' time and say that we should have asked more questions," Mr Blair said.