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A chorus of lawyers, industry representatives and health experts have accused The Block of using products they believe could be linked to a devastating health epidemic.

Silicosis, an incurable workplace-related disease caused by inhaling silica dust, has become prevalent in recent years.

As a result, engineered stone, a commonly sought-after material used in kitchen and bathroom benchtops for renovations and new builds around Australia, is slowly gaining an undesirable label in the industry as the “new asbestos”.

Engineered stone has exposed a quarter of a million Australians tradies, according to a recent study.

Curtin University estimated that more than 275,000 workers, primarily tradies, were exposed to high levels of the carcinogenic dust.

The study predicted that up to 103,000 labourers would be diagnosed with silicosis.

The material is safe for those living in a home where it’s been installed, but to be considered safe in the workplace, it must be cut wet by workers in full protective gear.

There are widespread calls for Australia to better requlate, or even ban, manufactured stone containing silica.

Aussie worker’s ‘death sentence’

One such Australian worker is Andrew Osborn from Reservoir, who worked with the stone in a workshop for almost a decade between 2010 and 2020.

He told news.com.au he spent years working six-day weeks cutting stone using hand tools before moving towards machinery.

“I’m a non-smoker, but I developed a persistent cough about five years into it,” he said.

“I was always told it was a virus or something.”

It wasn’t until 2020 that he received the diagnosis he described as a “death sentence”.

Mr Osborn, 39, has yet to contract cancer.

Still, his perilous day-to-day entails severe shortness of breath, low energy levels, and a compromised immune system, constantly making him sick with viral infections.

“If it does get worse, it is likely to get much, much worse,” he said.

“It’s like being handed a death sentence; you just don’t know how it’s going to play out, even if things are okay at the moment.

“Having a young family, the mental struggle with wondering if you’re going to see them grow up, that aspect can’t be understated.”

An aspiring pilot, Mr Osborn has been told by doctors to brace for a life on the ground.

“It has made things very difficult to utilise my education, I had been studying for years towards a lifelong dream. [But] for aviation, you need to maintain a class 1 medical,” he said.

“I have told by my doctors to temper expectations in terms of career prospects down that path.”

Mr Osborn lamented the early days working with stone when he claimed there was little to no warning that the dust he inhaled daily was potentially deadly.

“There was no warning on any of the materials, no instruction from the company, and no provisions of any useful PPE as well,” he said.

The Block endorsement slammed

The dangers of engineered stone have been thrust into the public spotlight this year with intensive workers’ union campaigns, academic studies and deep dives into the issue by the likes of 60 Minutes and the ABC.

ABC’s Media Watch recently took Channel 9 and The Block to task over using and promoting benchtops provided by global manufacturer Cosentino.

The program preluded the segment with The Block hosts and contestants fawning over the bench tops used on the renovations.

The supplier provides products for “natural stone” benchtops and other products with “low silica levels”, though industry experts argue that no level is safe.

Media Watch reported that The Block’s attempts to communicate the safety of the products it was using this season didn’t cut the mustard with sources, including the Australian Council of Trade Unions, declaring even low silica-stone presents risks, can be deadly, and should be prohibited.

Occupational hygienist Kate Cole OAM told Media Watch that a claim aired on The Block comparing its stone to “beach sand” regarding its safety level was “not accurate”.

“Silica dust refers to fine dust that can be breathed in and is generated whenever engineered stone is cut or polished, for example,” she said to Media Watch in a statement.

“If one were to generate a dust from beach sand (such as in sandblasting), then those workers would be at significant risk of silicosis … which is why using crystalline silica for sandblasting is prohibited under safety legislation.”

Channel 9 and Cosentino told the program that the products used on The Block houses don’t classify as engineered stone as per the Victorian Worksafe’s definition.

That definition states a product is only classified as engineered stone if it contains over 40 per cent silica.

According to Cosentino, stone products supplied The Block range from 3.3 per cent to 34 per cent silica.

But by the standards of Safe Work Australia, the national body responsible for improving work health and safety nationwide, Cosentino’s benchtops would be classified as engineered stone.

A Nine spokesperson reaffirmed to news.com.au that no engineered stone was used on The Block, but rather “natural stone” and other products they say are deemed safe by WorkSafe.

“In any event, no stone was cut on site,” they said.

“All benches were made off-site using safe work methods (as shown in the program) and then installed on location.”

The spokesperson added Nine had sighted documents stating its supplier, Cosentino, had undergone WorkSafe reviews of its work practices.

Union boss fumes over Block claims

CFMEU National Secretary Zach Smith, who has been championing a campaign to have engineered stone banned in Australia, told news.com.au that the union strongly disputes Nine and Cosentino’s claims its products are safe.

“People should listen to health experts who say there is no safe level of exposure to any engineered stone product, not fake tradies promoting foreign-owned merchants of death,” he said.

“Channel 9 and The Block clearly don’t care about Australians unnecessarily dying from working with engineered stone.

“I’d love to hear what Nine’s executives and Scotty Cam have to say to the widows, parents and children of workers who are dead because of engineered stone.

“People should boycott The Block over this disgusting endorsement of killer stone.”

Mr Smith added that workers from various trades have presented to their union with silicosis, believed to be linked to engineered stone.

“Stonemasons are on the front lines of this workplace safety crisis. But the problems don’t stop in that trade,” he said

“There are other construction workers exposed to engineered stone when it’s cut on building sites.

“We have members that should be planning families but are instead planning funerals in their 30s. It’s hard to fathom the amount of lives this killer stone will destroy.”

He feared the worst was yet to come, forecasting a “sharp increase in deaths” in coming years given the prevalence of engineered stone in Australia’s kitchens and bathrooms.

“Engineered stone is the asbestos of the 2020s. Anyone who stands in the way of a ban will have blood on their hands.”

The Block missed an opportunity to spread silicosis awareness

The legal fraternity has also joined the chorus of condemnation.

Tess Dickie, a specialist lawyer in asbestos and dust diseases from Gordon Legal, whose firm represents numerous silicosis sufferers, said it was “surprising” that the broadcaster defended its product use.

“What The Block is doing is in stark contrast to reporting earlier this year that really highlighted the danger of silica exposure and the tragic impact that it’s having on workers’ lives,” she told news.com.au.

“It seems to me The Block and Channel 9 have chosen to put their commercial interests ahead of an opportunity to highlight these dangers and continue to warn people about the impact that stone benchtops are having on people’s lives.”

“There’s no doubt that viewers and home renovators are influenced by the choice of products that contestants use on The Block.”

Ms Dickie said the many workers she and her firm act for are typically young male stonemasons.

“I’ve got young men with young families who can’t play with their kids, can’t kick the footy, can’t walk to the letterbox because they’re so disabled,” she said.

“It’s so tragic when you should have had many, many healthy, happy years ahead of you, and now they’re carrying the burden of an irreversible disease.”

In February this year, Spanish businessman Francisco Martinez, owner of Cosentino, admitted to covering up dangers associated with his company’s product.

This allegedly led to nearly 1,900 workers contracting silicosis.

He accepted a six-month suspended prison sentence for gross negligence in a plea deal in Galicia.

Cosentino denies responsibility beyond five specific cases and the company is preparing for a substantial IPO while facing allegations of inadequate safety measures related to its product “Silestone”, Reuters reports.

Cosentino has yet to respond to a request for further comment.

All allegations have been put to Channel 9.

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By Rahul

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