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100 warnings issued to Kiwi benchtop makers working with potentially deadly silica dust

The spotlight is on New Zealand's benchtop making industry as authorities respond to a deadly lung disease caused by cutting into stone with high levels of silica dust.

1 NEWS can reveal more than 100 enforcement actions have been taken against Kiwi businesses since alarms were raised in Australia, where there have been several deaths.

Michael Nolan worked as a qualified stonemason for 10 years in Australia, before being diagnosed with accelerated silicosis and progressive massive fibrosis this year.

“I’ve been given five to 10 years to live without a transplant,” he told 1 NEWS.

“I can probably only run for about a minute and a half before literally I nearly die from suffocation."

The 33-year-old was cutting artificial stone, made of 90 per cent silica.  Natural materials like granite  contain around 30 per cent.

Worksafe put out a safety alert in May and has so far inspected around 150 businesses.

Chief Inspector Assessments Southern, Darren Handforth, says they consist of relatively small units with three to five employees.

“Fundamentally, we are seeing some immaturity in the understanding of the risks that need to be managed when cutting engineered benchtops," he says.

A third of workplaces have been warned over unsafe practises, including inadequate controls, use of personal protection equipment and a lack of health and exposure monitoring.

Among them, 13 prohibition notices were issued, requiring certain work activity to be stopped until health and safety issues were remedied. A single workplace can be issued multiple notices for different areas of concern.

Mr Handforth says around 45 to 60 people die every year from acute safety risks like falls from heights or being struck by a vehicle.

“But what's less well known is the 750 to 900 people who die every year from chronic work-related health risks, of which accelerated silicosis firmly fits within that sphere."

Photos released to 1 NEWS of recent inspections show uncovered bags of dust, used stone, and machines still covered in silica.

Bags of dust left uncovered at a workplace Source: Supplied

A dust covered worksite inspected by Worksafe. Source: Supplied

It's a different picture for businesses which have invested millions in modern machinery.

Tretheway Artisan Stone Managing Director Steve Kirk says they’ve installed half a dozen machines that are all automated.

“We've put a lot of water out to suppress the dust, so the amount of drycutting that the guys are doing has dramatically reduced over the years," he says. 

Automated benchtop machinery at Tretheway Artisan Stone in Christchurch. Source: 1 NEWS

Mr Kirk says the next stage is “getting to the point where there's zero drycutting right throughout our process from start to finish”.

Worksafe also wants to see an end to the drycutting of engineered benchtops.

“We would actually expect people to be using wet cutting techniques. The use of water to dampen down the silica dust so it actually cannot be inhaled by the workers or what we call on-tool extraction of the machines that are actually cutting the benchtops,” Darren Handforth explains.

Meanwhile, Michael Nolan hopes New Zealand authorities recognise how “deadly serious” the issue is.

The father-of-two is facing the prospect of not being able to work again.

“It’s just an absolutely horrible situation and there's absolutely nothing I can do about it,” he says.

Specialist medical assessments for kiwi workers aren't mandatory.

On Monday night, 1 NEWS  looks at why testing for the disease is taking so long here, with calls for a shakeup on how the country deals with occupational health.

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Authorities are responding to a deadly lung disease caused by cutting into stone with high levels of silica dust. Source: 1 NEWS