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Engineered stone has been a popular choice across the construction and interior design industries for decades because of its durability and aesthetic appeal. So, what are the reasons behind Australia being the first country to ban engineered stone? And how will this ban affect the Australian construction industry on the whole?
Engineered stone, also commonly known as quartz surfacing, is a composite material manufactured using crushed stones bonded together with an adhesive. Often regarded as the darling of modern construction materials, engineered stone is practical, durable, versatile, and provides years of aesthetic appeal – think lavish countertops, sleek floorings, and beautiful wall panels.
But despite its popularity, engineered stone has become a workplace health and safety issue linked to serious health risks for workers involved with cutting and handling. This is the primary reason behind the Australian government’s move to ban engineered stone.
The Durability of Engineered Stone
Engineered stone is incredibly resilient, boasting properties such as:
- Ability to withstand standard wear and tear
This toughness makes it perfect for high-traffic areas, able to withstand the demands of both residential and commercial settings without significant damage.
Aesthetics of Engineered Stone
Beyond its hard-wearing nature, engineered stone offers aesthetic versatility with:
- A variety of colours and designs
- Technology-enabled mimicry of natural stone appearance, including marble and granite
- Capability to introduce vibrant colours and unique patterns unachievable with natural stones
Uses of Engineered Stone
The uses of engineered stone are varied, and it’s commonly used in:
- Kitchen countertops
- Bathroom vanities
- Wall claddings
In commercial settings, it’s often used in floorings, reception counters, and backsplashes.
Understanding the Engineered Stone Ban in Australia
The Australian government’s ban on engineered stone is driven by occupational health concerns and comes into effect for the majority of Commonwealth jurisdictions from 1 July 2024.
Also known as reconstituted or artificial stone, engineered stone is composed predominantly of silica, a common mineral found in most types of stone.
Prolonged exposure to and inhalation of silica dust, a by-product of cutting, grinding, and polishing engineered stone, can lead to silicosis – an often fatal lung disease. Silicosis is an irreversible condition and can also lead to other life-threatening complications, such as tuberculosis and lung cancer. The rise of silicosis cases associated with the engineered stone sector has sparked widespread discussion around a ‘silicosis crisis’ in Australia, motivating the ban.
Impact of the Ban on Australia’s Construction Industry
The engineered stone ban impacts the Australian construction industry in a number of ways.
Material choices: Engineered stone is highly versatile and used widely in construction. By banning engineered stone in Australia, the options of materials available to builders decrease. This impacts design creativity and aesthetic standards and can delay or obstruct construction projects.
Costs: Engineered stone is cheaper than its natural-stone counterparts, offering a more affordable option for builders and homeowners. With a ban on engineered stone, builders may need to revert to higher-priced natural stone — like granite or marble — or consider alternative lower-cost materials with a possible trade-off on durability. Any cost changes are likely to ripple outwards, creating wider industry price shifts, and probable budget increases for homeowners or business owners looking to construct or renovate.
Industry impact: The ban also reshuffles the deck for workers in the construction industry. Any transition necessitates adaptation and learning. Moving away from engineered stone implies a need for new skill sets, as workers may need to become familiar with different materials, their properties, the tools needed to manipulate them, and associated safety measures. All this has the potential to cause temporary inconveniences or delays in construction schedules as the industry learns and adapts.
Alternative Construction Materials
In the wake of the engineered stone ban, there are some potential replacements that builders can consider.
Natural stone: This includes marble and granite. Aside from its aesthetic appeal, natural stone is highly durable and is an investment that can span generations if maintained properly. The downside of natural stone is the material and installation costs which can be significantly higher than engineered stone.
Quartz: Engineered stone often includes significant amounts of quartz. Nonetheless, 100% quartz products make for a safer, though somewhat pricier, alternative. With its natural resistance to scratch and heat, quartz also allows plenty of room for versatile design choices.
Concrete: Concrete’s versatility and customisation ability make it another considered option. Enabling an assortment of colours and textures by manipulating the mix’s elements, concrete is both accessible in terms of price and application.
Recycled glass: This option is a pivot from harmful to sustainable – a trendy eco-friendly choice that blends well with most design aesthetics, from contemporary to rustic.
While none of these materials offer the exact set of benefits that engineered stone does, each alternative material has unique strengths. The construction choice will depend on a variety of factors which includes: the desired look and feel, budget, sustainability goals, and availability.
Future of Construction Policies in Australia
The ban on engineered stone will be a catalyst for readjustment and new possibilities borne out of evolving industry policies. The ban marks a pivotal shift in Australia’s construction policies and focuses forward on what else may be in store. Some trends to keep an eye on include:
A more stringent examination of building materials and construction processes. Rigorous safety and environmental checks may become the norm, not only for raw materials but also for engineered ones, scrutinising the complete lifecycle of materials from production to disposal.
Green building incentives. Australia, like many other nations, is facing the challenge of climate change. To mitigate the construction industry’s impact on the environment, we may see a rise in incentives for the use of sustainable construction materials, like reclaimed wood and recycled metal, in an effort to lower carbon footprints.
Workers’ safety, already a critical aspect of construction guidelines, could achieve even greater importance. Given the significant health issues associated with engineered stone, protective measures to safeguard tradespeople working with potentially harmful materials may result in revised policies.
Digital transformation. Technological advances, digital tools and artificial intelligence have the potential to enhance efficiency and safety.
Public consultation. All stakeholders – large and small – could become a more integral part of policy-making with better opportunities to voice concerns and suggestions on policy-making.
Staying Informed to Keep Your Workplace Safe
If your staff come into contact with silica and are based in the construction industry, it is now mandatory by legislation to train your staff. Click here to find out more about our Canberra silica awareness training courses.
Established 2008, AlertForce are the ‘Health & Safety Training People’ specialising in compliance training for work health and safety (WHS)/occupational health and safety (OHS). No matter what your WHS/OHS training project may be, we can help you with your change. We offer quality online, face-to-face and/or blended training approaches to create fast, flexible and competitive WHS/OHS training and compliance solutions. Our courses are designed for in-depth knowledge and understanding. We are innovators committed to help our customers Australia-wide with solutions that make business sense. Please contact us on 1800 900 222 for your training and consulting requirements
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