Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt is asking state workplace regulators to immediately investigate risks to the health of stonemasons, and stop unsafe work practices.
It comes after calls from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Thoracic Society for urgent national health screening of stonemasons to check for the dust lung disease, silicosis.
The Queensland government yesterday confirmed 35 stonemasons have the potentially fatal disease, after cutting engineered stone kitchen benchtops.
An investigation by the ABC’s 7.30 program has discovered more cases in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT.
In the past three financial years in Victoria there have been 16 silicosis claims by stonemasons, and in NSW there were 23 total silicosis claims, some by stonemasons.
Mr Hunt issued a statement saying he and the chief medical officer would raise the issue at a health COAG meeting in Adelaide on Friday.
He said the meeting would be asked to consider whether a national dust diseases register should be developed.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor would back a national screening program, saying he did not think the issue should become a “political football”.
Doctors believe silicosis is Australia’s worst occupational lung disease crisis since the peak of the asbestos disaster.
Last month the Queensland government issued an urgent warning after 22 silicosis claims were lodged with WorkCover, including for six people who were diagnosed as terminally ill.
The NSW Labor Opposition has also backed calls by medical professionals and former stonemasons for urgent action to protect workers.
Melbourne man Tahir Ozkul, 46, has had a lung transplant after developing accelerated silicosis.
For years he worked in a small factory where all he had was a paper mask, which failed to protect him from the dust created as he cut kitchen benchtops.
Engineered stone can contain up to 90 per cent silica, much higher than the content in granite or marble.
After a day at work he would be covered in dust and said he looked like a “snowman”.
Silicosis left Mr Ozkul struggling to walk more than 20 metres unassisted and needing oxygen to breathe.
“I can’t do normal activity like walk, I can’t go somewhere easily,” he told 7.30.
“The pain, the short breath is very bad, I feel very uncomfortable.”
‘Just the tip of the iceberg’
Roger Singh, who specialises in dust diseases at Shine Lawyers, is representing 12 clients from around the country affected by silicosis and said he was receiving weekly inquiries.
“The numbers we are seeing are just the tip of the iceberg,” Mr Singh said, adding “potentially several thousand in each state” have been affected.
“For many it’s too little too late, but if steps are taken at this point in time, it may save the next generation of stonemasons.
“I’ve been speaking with individuals, workers and stonemasons in their 20s, 30s, and 40s — that is far too early to be impacted by a horrific disease of this calibre.”
The NSW Opposition has suggested a ban on dry-cutting, which Mr Singh said there was a strong case for.
“There is some argument for that. I have heard workers suggest there should be a complete ban of the product and people should return to fabricating and cutting natural stone, which contains far less silica content,” he said.
“If there was asbestos in these work environments you can bet your bottom dollar those workshops would be shut down immediately.
“Actions would be brought against workplaces and those who supplied the products who put workers in harm’s way … there is fault at many levels.”