December 13, 2019

Resources Seek to Protect Stone Workers from Silica Dust Exposure, Silicosis

The Occupational Health Branch of the California Department of Public Health has published resources for employers and workers to minimize exposure to silica dust when working with engineered stone during countertop fabrication and installation. The branch has developed hazard warnings for both workers (PDF) and employers (PDF), and has issued an occupational health alert (PDF) regarding a recent outbreak of silicosis among engineered stone fabrication workers across four states. A new page on CDPH’s website collects these resources and others from OSHA, NIOSH, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Two engineered stone fabrication workers died last year in California from severe silicosis at the ages of 36 and 38. According to CDPH, both worked at a stone countertop fabrication company performing tasks such as polishing, dry cutting, and grinding slabs of engineered stone, which can contain more than 90 percent crystalline silica. A November 2019 email from CDPH states that 43 more employees at the company have been checked and almost 12 percent found to also have silicosis. The department urges stone fabrication and installation employers follow the OSHA and Cal/OSHA standards for silica and implement necessary control measures to reduce dust levels.

“Studies have shown that the silica exposure in many of these shops is much higher than allowed under the new federal [OSHA] silica standard,” CDPH says. “It is likely that many more cases of silicosis among U.S. stone fabrication workers have occurred but are unrecognized, since few workers have been given a silicosis medical examination.”

In addition to the two California workers, CDC has identified 16 other cases of silicosis among U.S. stone workers in Colorado, Texas, and Washington since 2017. Silicosis is a preventable occupational disease attributable to the inhalation of respirable crystalline silica particles. Previously, only one case of silicosis had been reported among engineered stone fabrication workers in the U.S., according to CDC. In 2018, the agency estimated that there were more than 96,000 employees in the United States’ stone fabrication industry.

Reports in other countries have confirmed the existence of multiple silicosis cases among stone workers. In February 2019, the Australian news agency ABC published information about silicosis among stone workers in the state of Queensland, where nearly 100 stoneworkers tested positive for silicosis and 15 had developed progressive massive fibrosis, a severe form of the disease.

More information about crystalline silica is available from the websites of CDC and NIOSH. The Synergist Newswire, AIHA’s Tuesday e-newsletter, recently featured two articles published by NPR about silicosis among U.S. countertop workers: “‘It's Going to Get Worse': How U.S. Countertop Workers Started Getting Sick” and “‘There's No Good Dust’: What Happens After Quartz Countertops Leave the Factory.” An infographic about silicosis among Queensland stone workers appeared in the April 2019 Synergist.