WHS ministers condemn engineered stone product rebranding

Any attempts by companies to rebrand engineered stone as another product to intentionally avoid the upcoming ban on engineered stone was recently condemned by federal, state and territory WHS ministers. WHS regulators should also take strong compliance and enforcement action about the ban, including addressing instances of rebranding engineered stone as a different product, according to the ministers.

The ban on engineered stone benchtops, panels and slabs was the subject of a recent meeting of all WHS ministers, who endorsed a stronger regulatory framework to manage the risk of exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

The ministers agreed that draft amendments to the model WHS laws will effect the prohibition on using engineered stone benchtops, panels and slabs from 1 July 2024. 

All sintered stone and porcelain products are excluded from the prohibition, and clarify that finished engineered stone products (such as jewellery, garden ornaments, sculptures, and kitchen sinks) do not require processing or modification and pose minimal risk to the health and safety of workers, are not prohibited.

WHS regulators would manage Safe Work Australia’s proposed framework for exemptions from the prohibition through an application process requiring compelling evidence that a product can be worked with safely.

To ensure a nationally consistent approach, the framework would include arrangements for the mutual recognition of exemptions by jurisdictions, and will operate consistently with the existing national exemption framework published on the Safe Work Australia website.

Safe Work Australia will also develop common criteria for WHS regulators to use for the grant, refusal and variation of exemptions, with consideration of appropriate consultation with employer and employee representatives and technical experts. 

To ensure consistency in the decisions to exempt products, the agency will also develop an oversight process for Safe Work Australia members about the basis of decisions to issue an exemption as part of the national framework for exempting engineered stone products.

The ministers also noted that processing alternative products containing crystalline silica will be subject to stronger regulations on crystalline silica processes, which include a prohibition on uncontrolled processing.

Jurisdictions may also adopt a transition period for contracts entered into prior to the announcement of the prohibition. This means that work that involves the supply, installation or processing of engineered stone benchtops, panels and slabs between 1 July 2024 and 31 December 2024 would be exempt from the prohibition provided the work is carried out under or for the purposes of a contract that provides for the installation of engineered stone entered into on or before 31 December 2023.

Ministers also encouraged businesses and consumers to explore alternative products under eligible contracts as soon as possible and approach any required contract negotiations in good faith to minimise the use of engineered stone benchtops, panels and slabs during this transitional period.

The ministers also agreed on policy parameters for a stronger regulatory framework for workers processing crystalline silica-containing materials and products. This includes specific requirements for persons conducting a business or undertaking carrying out high-risk crystalline silica processes to: 

  • develop a silica risk control plan aimed at identifying hazards associated with crystalline silica processes and measures to control these risks; 
  • provide additional training for workers or others likely exposed to the risks associated with high-risk crystalline silica processes; 
  • undertake air and health monitoring for workers; and
  • report workplace exposure standard exceedances to the relevant WHS regulator.