Engineered stone, an artificial stone often used in making kitchen and bathroom countertops, contains dangerous materials that can put engineered stone fabrication workers in danger of developing life-threatening lung injuries. Engineered stone is primarily composed of mineral silica (90% silica composition). Compared to other materials used for countertops, such as granite (<45% silica composition) and marble (<10% silica composition), the engineered stone contains a much higher quantity of silica. When the engineered stone is cut, dangerous amounts of silica dust become airborne. If inhaled, the silica dust poses a hazard to engineered stone fabrication workers’ lungs, causing irreversible damage in the lungs of any person in close proximity. Any worker who cuts, grinds, or polishes engineered stone is at risk of being injured by this silica dust. The silica in the countertops does not pose a risk after installation, only the dust produced during the manufacturing process.
Workers exposed to silica dust are most commonly diagnosed with silicosis, a non-treatable, progressive lung disease that deteriorates the respiratory system and, without a lung transplant, can result in death. A report recently filed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Severe Silicosis in Engineered Stone Fabrication Workers”, outlined the study of workers diagnosis with silicosis. The CDC report reviewed 18 cases of silicosis in engineered stone fabrication workers, primarily from California, Colorado, Texas and Washington. Of the 18 case studies, two of the engineered stone fabrication workers' silicosis injuries resulted in death. One worker from the CDC study, 37-year-old cutter Jose Martinez, worked as a polisher and cutter for a countertop company that produced engineered stone. Martinez explained the work conditions at the facility, where workers were unable to escape the silica dust. "If you go to the bathroom, it's dust. When we go to take lunch, on the tables, it's dust," Martinez explained. "Your nose, your ears, your hair, all your body, your clothes — everything. When you walk out of the shop, you can see your steps on the floor, because of the dust." Martinez was diagnosed with silicosis, which has already had a major effect on his life. He says that, at 37 years old, he is no longer able to run and play with his children. After learning that two of his co-workers - also in their 30’s - had died from silicosis, Martinez is now afraid for his own life. Four additional engineered stone fabrication workers from Martinez’s workplace have also been diagnosed with silicosis.
Engineered stone has drastically risen in popularity in the past decade because it is less likely to crack or stain. In fact, product imports rose by 800% from 2010 to 2018. With more than 100,000 workers in the industry and 8,000 stone fabrication businesses nationwide, public health officials are concerned that the rise in engineered stone’s popularity could be putting thousands of engineered stone fabrication workers at risk of silicosis.
In 2015, OSHA issued a “hazard alert” for engineered stone fabrication workers, warning of a significant risk of developing silicosis if exposed to high levels of silica dust produced in the manufacturing process. In 2016, the agency issued new limitations on the amount of airborne silica dust in the workplace, reducing the allowed amount by half of what it had been previously. This decision was praised by safety experts but was met with animosity from industry leaders. OSHA also proposed to implement a national emphasis program for silica, which would have targeted engineered stone fabrication facilities for special inspections, but the Trump administration has since ended OSHA’s proposal. According to officials, this legally limits OSHA in its ability to regulate the engineered stone fabrication industry. While OSHA can conduct investigations into workplace injuries and complaints from employees. However, because many of the individuals employed as engineered stone fabrication workers are undocumented immigrants, they are unlikely to file injuries or reports.
Officials say that workers should use approved filtration masks whenever working with engineered stone. Facilities should be properly ventilated and should meet OSHA standards for airborne silica dust. Engineered stone should be cut while wet in order to minimize the risk of silica dust becoming airborne. If employees believe that their workplace contains an unsafe amount of silica dust, they should file a report with OSHA. Both customers and employees should make sure that the facility they are buying from / working at is accredited by the Natural Stone Institute, and oversight institution that trains companies to properly and safely cut and polish stone.
If you are an engineered stone fabrication worker and you have been diagnosed with silicosis, contact the offices of TorHoerman Law right away. You may be eligible to file a personal injury lawsuit against your employer or employer’s distributor for the damages you suffered as a result of their failure to warn workers of the dangers of silica dust exposure and for creating an unsafe workplace.
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