With the growing popularity of stone countertops, workers in this industry are facing a deadly threat: crystalline silica exposure. The danger is so great that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a joint health hazard alert in 2015. OSHA and NIOSH issued the alert after reports of 46 workers in Spain and 25 workers in Israel exposed to crystalline silica developing silicosis—an incurable and sometimes fatal lung disease that causes progressive disability. Ten employees in Israel were so ill that they needed lung transplants. Countertop workers should not take this danger lightly because silica can cause an irreversible lung condition that can result in their deaths.
Who Is at Risk of Crystalline Silica Exposure?
Crystalline silica is a substance occurring as natural quartz that is in granite, sandstone, quartzite, and other rocks and sand. It is found in both natural and manufactured stone used in making stone countertops, and some countertops are 90 percent silica. Manufactured countertop slabs are actually made by mixing crystalline silica, resin, and pigments.
Workers in the countertop industry must grind, polish, and drill stone—releasing silica dust particles into the air—in the production of the countertops. The following employees are most at risk of being exposed to toxic levels of silica:
- Workers operating power tools like saws, grinders, and high-speed polishers are at the highest risk of exposure
- Workers who open bags of quartz, moving or mixing ingredients, cleaning and scraping mixers, and cleaning dust collectors
- Workers who finish or install stone countertops
- Production operators
- Workers who perform maintenance and cleaning duties at these facilities
- Workers who perform non-related jobs in close proximity to silica dust-generating operations
How Crystalline Silica Can Endanger Workers
When crystalline silica dust becomes airborne during the production, finishing, and installing of stone countertops, workers breathe in the very small crystalline silica particles. These particles become trapped in the lungs, causing their lungs to become scarred and inflamed. This reduces their ability to take in oxygen. Employees who inhale this toxic substance are in danger of developing these diseases:
- Lung cancer
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Kidney disease
What Are the Symptoms of Silicosis?
The signs of silicosis develop over time, and many workers may not make the connection between their symptoms, their work, and this disease. Workers who have a heavy exposure to silica can experience symptoms in as little as 5 to 10 years. Others may not become ill for up to 20 years. Common symptoms of silicosis include:
- Shortness of breath—especially after physical exertion
- Loss of appetite
- Chest pains
- Severe cough
Unfortunately, there is no cure for this progressively worsening disease, and the main treatment is management of the symptoms.
Can Silica Exposure Be Prevented?
Crystalline Silica exposure can be reduced significantly if employers follow safety measures designed to protect workers. OSHA and NIOSH have a complete package of safety practices that includes engineering controls, work safety practices, and training techniques to make workplaces safe. Employers should implement the following:
- Have an air monitoring system in place to regularly check for silica exposure levels
- Employ water spraying systems and ventilation systems to control silica dust
- Implement safety practices like prewashing and the use of vacuums
- Enclose and isolate the dust-producing work to limit other workers’ exposure
- Minimize the amount of stone countertop work done off-site where there is less control over safety measures and workers’ exposure
- Provide workers with a respirator protection system that complies with OSHA requirements
- Medically monitor workers who are exposed to silica
- Train workers in the hazards of crystalline silica and of safety measures to protect themselves
If you suffer with silicosis or another disease caused by silica exposure, you could be facing total disability once your symptoms progress. Fortunately you could be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits to pay your medical bills and lost wages. I urge you to call our firm at 877-360-0183 to schedule a free case evaluation.