A 36-year-old Gold Coast father is the human face behind a silent killer, as calls grow for the banning of engineered stone in Australia. READ PART 1 OF THE EXCLUSIVE INVESTIGATION
STONEMASON Adam Emery is resigned to missing out on the special things in life: School formals, graduations, weddings and grandchildren.
The father of six has silicosis and has only a few years — possibly months — to live.
“I’ve got a 1.8cm growth in my lung, so this is classed as progressive massive fibrosis and medically I get classed as terminal,” the 36-year-old says. “My life will be cut short dramatically and no one knows how long I have actually got to live.
“If I wanted to risk my life, I would have joined the army and at least I would have died for a good cause. Now I feel like I’m dying for some rich f***er’s benchtop.”
Mr Emery’s sad story is becoming all too familiar. A Bulletin investigation has found there are another 173 young stonecutters just like him in Queensland — and that list is increasing by the month. Thirty-two have progressive massive fibrosis and will be dead within five years.
Authorities know what is killing the young workers but won’t ban engineered stone because it is “cheap and mass produced”.
Workers are scared to lose their jobs by speaking up as it is largely left to employers to ensure staff are screened; and Workplace Health and Safety Queensland said it would finally re-audit the stone benchtop industry — eight months after it was asked to — after inquiries by the Bulletin.
Mr Emery says any measure now is too late to save him. But he does not want to die in vain and is determined to blow the lid on unsafe workplace practices.
Crucially, he wants engineered stone banned in Australia.
“It shouldn’t be coming into the country, full stop. There is no way to work with the product in a safe manner. The industry can survive with marble and granite, it’s only benchtops.
“If they keep manufacturing this stone, then more young men are going to keep getting this disease and won’t live to see their children grow into adults.”
Mr Emery has been exposed to deadly silica dust at various workplaces for 20 years, having started his stonemasonry apprenticeship on the Gold Coast when just 16.
Mr Emery said he wasn’t shocked to learn of his diagnosis just before Christmas last year as he was finding it difficult to complete a day’s work or to play with his kids for more than five minutes.
“I was a wreck for a few days after being diagnosed because no one could give me any answers on whether I had months or years to live,” he said.
The Federal Government said it set up the National Dust Disease Taskforce to investigate those at risk in the industry.
The taskforce has flagged five interim recommendations and 17 findings, including examining if the importation of engineered stone products should be banned in Australia. A final report is due by mid-2021.
Mr Emery said when he started in the industry, high-rises on the Gold Coast were mainly fit-out with natural stones such as marble and granite. By 2001, engineered stone had started becoming popular.
“The first time I cut a piece of it there was a weird smell and I said to my boss ‘it’s going to be the next asbestos’.
“I was told ‘you’re 16, you don’t get paid to think, you get paid to work’. But I could smell the toxicity.”
Mr Emery recalls being covered in silica dust “like a snowman”, with protective equipment rarely supplied by employers or work sites.
He’s travelled throughout Queensland for work, but recently sought tiling work in an attempt to avoid having to work with engineered stone, which contains up to 95 per cent silica dust.
“I was never taught about silica during my apprenticeship and everything was dry-cut back then with no protective PPE gear offered.
“Despite the fact dry-cutting is now banned, I still see it happening every day.
“Occasionally, you get supplied with a paper mask, but it’s never enforced or a requirement.
Some bosses were a little bit more excepting of PPE but others didn’t acknowledge it at all.
“But if you said anything it was a good way to get sacked. At one stage I questioned it and my boss ended up sacking me on the spot because he thought I was becoming a whinger.”
Following his diagnosis through WorkCover Queensland, Mr Emery is no longer allowed to return to his trade or any industry to do with dust or silica, the only thing he has ever known.
“I can’t even get my earthmoving tickets because of the dust. Even working inside in my industry isn’t allowed because I’m not allowed on job sites. I’ve never done office work so I couldn’t think of anything worse for myself. But I’ve got no choice, I’ve got child support payments.”
©Gold Coast Bulletin 2020
An exclusive Gold Coast Bulletin investigation.