Behind their luster, quartz countertops hide a disturbing secret - the manufacturing and installation of artificial quartz kitchen and bathroom countertops are causing many workers to develop silicosis, an irreversible lung disease.
Occupational silicosis linked to manufactured quartz
Silicosis is caused by inhaling silica, tiny particles released when engineered quartz countertops - and other silica-containing materials - are ground, cut, polished, or otherwise disturbed.
Silica inhalation has been a longstanding hazard for many contractors, builders, installers, and skilled tradespeople. However, in recent years silicosis diagnoses have increased - especially among the nation's approximately 100,000 countertop workers. According to one study, as many as 12% of countertop fabrication facility workers have silicosis.
Increased reports of silicosis
Increased incident reports are linked, at least in part, to the rising demand for manufactured quartz. While many natural types of stone contain silica, manufactured quartz is loaded with it. For example, granite is typically less than 45% silica, but engineered quartz is often over 90%.
Health experts say thousands of workers in the U.S. are inhaling hazardous levels of silica dust on the job. At some workplaces, silica dust is practically inescapable.
"If you go to the bathroom, it's dust. When we go to take lunch, on the tables, it's dust," a worker recently diagnosed with silicosis told NPR in 2019. "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."
California fast-tracks safety proposal
Federal legislation already limits how much silica dust workers can be exposed to on the job. And exposure can be limited using effective wet-cutting techniques, proper ventilation, and quality personal protective equipment (PPE) like respirators.
However, federal law alone does not appear to be getting the job done. For example, investigators conducting a survey of California's 808 countertop fabrication shops estimated that more than 70% of the facilities were "likely out of compliance" with silica safety standards.
That's why California state legislators are poised to set safety standards seeking to better prevent inhalation of dangerous silica dust during countertop cutting and grinding.
In July, California's Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board voted to fast-track the development of new regulations that would be more effective in keeping workers safe from harmful silica dust.
The hope, officials say, is to have a temporary emergency standard proposal prepared within three or four months. If successful, California would be the first state in the U.S. to pass additional protection for people working with manufactured quartz countertops.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the county board of supervisors is considering a ban on engineered quartz countertops.
Countertop silicosis statistics
California workers at the highest risk for engineered quartz countertop-related lung disease are Latino men, according to national media. A recent study of 52 lung disease patients exposed to crystalline silica at California facilities revealed facts about the disturbing situation. Among participants:
- The median work tenure for those with silica-exposure lung disease was 15 years. During that time, 45% of workers reported using water suppression for dust mitigation, and 48% said they continued to work with quartz after they were diagnosed with silicosis.
- 58% of silica exposure victims experienced a delay in diagnosis, primarily due to alternative initial diagnoses of bacterial pneumonia or tuberculosis.
- At the time of diagnosis, 28% of patients were in the stage of advanced progressive massive fibrosis and struggled with severely or very severely reduced breathing abilities.
- 19% of occupational silica exposure victims with lung disease did not have health insurance. And 48% of those surveyed initially sought treatment from an emergency department.
- 19% of the silicosis cases were fatal. The median age at death was 46.
Employees have a right to safety
Silica exposure is not just a California problem. Countertop manufacturers and installers as well as other types of workers are put at risk every day across the U.S. This is wrong. Under the law, employees must be provided with safe workplaces.
When employees are injured or made ill due to their working environment, they have options to obtain justice and financial compensation for their medical expenses, lost wages, and pain.
If you developed lung cancer or lung disease due to toxic exposure at work, contact us for a free consultation. At no cost to you, a member of our team can listen to the details of what happened, answer your questions, and explain your potential legal options.