Dust-Up Down Under

It Can't Happen Here. (Famous Last Words.)

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By Emerson Schwartzkopf

I’ve resisted the idea of going medical in the column for long enough. It’s time to mask up, get clean and …. What, you think I’m stepping into the COVID debate? Nope. Let’s run the time machine back to pre-pandemic times of late 2019. Let’s talk about silicosis. Maybe it’s hard to remember the concern over a workplace hazard that develops into a condition for which there’s never going to be a vaccine. Even after we corral current worldwide viral infections to acceptable levels, crystalline silica is still going to be a potential killer in any backshop. Silicosis in the hard-surface trade isn't a new or novel condition. Long-term suffocation from stone dust caught the attention of U.S. doctors and government more than a century ago with marble mill workers, leading to ever-stricter measures to clean up production in all stone shops. The concern in the 2000s is a closer look at the fine particles of crystalline silica created when cutting quartz-based materials. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) noted this when it put stone fabrication under harsher industrial standards of workplace air quality. Stone fabrication also hit the spotlight in 2019, when the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted a study of silicosis among engineered-stone workers in four Western states. This led to an in-depth National Public Radio series later that year on silicosis and talk of more regulation. Nobody’s ignored silicosis on an industry level in the United States. The Natural Stone Institute has worked diligently on awareness, education and regulation (start here), with companies in the trade offering resources, such as Caesarstone’s Master of Stone program. Hard-surface manufacturers may provide some relief with non-silica-based components for new types of engineered stone. Initial rollout was set for last year during the major shows, and then …. Well, 2020 happened. The pandemic swamped everything, including any notable attention on other health concerns, at least in the United States. Halfway around the planet, however, it’s a different story. Australia is still taking on COVID along with the rest of the world, but silicosis in stone-fabrication shops remains a very big deal. The mammoth dust-up in Australia earlier in 2019 kicked off a new round of concern about silicosis and fabrication of engineered-stone. While “engineered stone” can define various man-made surfaces, the real focus here is on quartz surfaces. Quartz surfaces became immensely popular in Australia, making it an early major market for international manufacturers. Like anywhere else in the world, the material sold because of its durability due to its main ingredient – more than 90% by volume – of various grades of quartz sands. A few years ago, case of severe silicosis began showing up among Australian fabrication workers – in local jargon, the "tradies.” In short order, emaciated stoneworkers in hospital beds (and their subsequent deaths) received major attention in Australian media. Health regulators at the Australian national and state level began looking at the problem. The result is a pro-active approach, with increased funding for medical studies and treatment, with one procedure – a full saline rinse of affected workers’ lungs – showing real promise. And, in several states, dry fabrication is now banned. Period. However, the attention to worker deaths in Australian media led to some lawmakers calling for an outright ban on engineered stone. Admittedly, this began with only a few voices from eco-centric parties, but the idea of outlawing quartz surfaces is now on the table as an option when policies and programs are reviewed in a few years. That's the situation in Australia. It can’t happen here, can it? We can exhume unpleasant memories with the word radon, where an intense media campaign and showing off “dangerous” rocks in plastic boxes led to coverage in the New York Times and innumerable local TV news programs. Silicosis isn’t really a consumer problem, but pictures of someone on death's door in a hospital bed can get a lot of attention. Unlike the radon fracas, there’s some convincing scientific evidence joining fabrication and silicosis. Joining COVID with an ongoing respiratory workplace ailment is a study (along with a trail of personal-injury lawyers) waiting to happen. If things get riled up, don’t think that quartz surfaces will be the only thing under scrutiny, either. If a 90% silica-based material is considered dangerous, how about 60%? 50%? Hello quartzite, granite and a host of other natural stone. The point is that we need to keep talking about silicosis as a serious threat to all of us in the industry. It’s a problem that we can literally dampen and eradicate, because it’s a long-term killer for workers and for business. And, let’s keep a close eye on what’s happening in Australia, because it’s not a good idea to ignore a health problem on the other side of the globe. We're still wrangling with the last one.