For many homeowners, gleaming stone countertops are the central focus in any kitchen remodel. But traditional high-end materials like granite and marble come with a lot of upkeep: sealing regimens, specialized cleaners and vigilance against chips or deep-set stains. Engineered quartz seems to offer a happy middle ground. It can mimic the look of natural stone, but it’s hard to scratch and almost impossible to stain. No wonder it’s become a top choice in kitchen remodels, even with a price on par with natural stone.
But engineered quartz isn’t a natural material. It’s made from crushed quartz stone, polymer resin and dye. When any stone countertop material is cut, shaped and polished, the process releases fine particles of silica, a mineral in stone and clay. Engineered quartz contains a much higher percentage of silica than other stone types: up to 93 percent vs. the 10-45 percent present in granite slabs, according to an OSHA Hazard Alert. This puts fabricators who work with engineered stone products at greater risk for contracting silicosis, a serious lung disease.
What is silicosis?
Inhaled silica inflames the lungs and leads to scarring over time. After several years of exposure—usually at least 10—silicosis pulmonary fibrosis may develop. Workers with symptoms of silicosis may cough and experience shortness of breath. Eventually, they might have bronchitis-like symptoms, breathing challenges, weakness and fatigue, according to the American Lung Association.
Unfortunately, once symptoms show up, there’s no cure. Management, including eliminating further exposure and quitting smoking, can slow the disease’s progress.
Some affected workers need oxygen support. Severe cases might require lung transplants. Silicosis is also linked to an increased risk of:
- Lung cancer
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Chronic bronchitis
- Kidney disease
Recently, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine made national news when it raised alarms over the prevalence of silicosis in engineered stone fabricators in California. Of the 52 patients studied, most were young Latino men, many had a delay in diagnosis and 19 percent died from the disease. Alarmingly, many of the workers described using safety measures at work, including masks and dust-reducing tools—actions that did not prevent them from eventually developing the disease.
Who is at risk?
Silicosis was once most closely connected to miners—an occupational disease that would develop after years on the job. But any person who works in an environment with clay or stone dust is potentially at risk, including those in construction, masonry, ceramics, foundry work or fracking.
In the countertop production industry, workers may be exposed:
- As they manufacture engineered stone
- As they cut, edge, contour and polish stone or engineered quartz
- As they install or hand-finish countertops.
Silicosis is irreversible, so it’s all the more critical that workplaces take the right steps to protect their team. In its Hazard Report, OSHA recommends employers:
- Collect dust samples and work with a consultant to keep shops below recommended particulate levels.
- Provide proper respiratory protections to workers.
- Use engineering controls like water spray saws and HEPA-filter equipped hand tools.
- Provide regular medical exams for any potentially exposed workers, regardless of symptoms.
For some, though, workplace protections and citations are no longer enough to meet the risk. Australia has moved to ban engineered stone entirely, with the federal workplace relations minister comparing it to asbestos. Los Angeles County is taking steps to enact the first stateside ban.
As the cumulative effects of silica exposure lead to new cases, more workers in the countertop industry will likely face challenging health outcomes. Workers’ compensation can cover occupational injuries like silicosis, and help provide the support injured workers need.
Contact a workers’ compensation lawyer today
If you work with engineered stone, you may be at risk for silicosis. These cases are incredibly complicated, in part because the disease takes so long to develop and treatment is challenging. A workers’ compensation attorney can help. Contact the Law Offices of Laura Lanzisera today for a free consultation, or give us a call at 404-991-5097.