Clearing the Air

Take the CDC Seriously.
Everyone Else Does.

File:Silicosis.ILO Classification 2-2 Dr. S.Haberis licensed under CC 1.0

By Emerson Schwartzkopf

So this government agency says that cutting engineered stone can be harmful to workers? And, hey, you’re not cutting dry anymore, and your shop’s mainly doing granite anyway? What’s it to you?

Plenty, because this is more than a press release from some bunch of federal form-checkers, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve fended off quartz surfaces from your shop by hanging garlic cloves and sharpening the wood shims.

The recent report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) isn’t a wake-up call. It’s the last ring of the snooze alarm before someone comes in and possibly sets your bed on fire.

Overly dramatic? Not really. This is something that will have a long-term effect – years, maybe decades – because the consequences will be as cumulative as the silicosis created by the hause there will be consequences.

Let’s face facts; stone dust during fabrication was considered just part of the process for centuries, just like other innumerable worker hazards in every trade and industry. The idea that silica particles in workplace air could be fatal centered around large industrial activities like coal mining and marble milling.

Developments in the last 25 years that fueled the magic growth of hard-surface fabrication – better and more-affordable diamond tooling, the revolution in machinery and the flood of natural stone in the international market – also fed the hazards of silicosis in the workplace. The major acceptance of engineered-stone products, with a 90%-plus silica content that’s usually double the amount found in granite, accelerated the possible health risk.

Frankly, it’s amazing that it took this long for someone in the United States to connect heightened silicosis risk with quartz surfaces. It’s a topic of debate and legal action in other countries – notably, Australia – and caught the attention of the New York Times in 2016.

Unlike the granite/radon scares of the 1990s and 2000s, the U.S. warning sign came from an independent source of long-standing repute. The CDC is the nation’s defense force against diseases and major health hazards. They keep tabs on major threats. They fight pandemics. They don’t fool around with the little stuff.

The Background

The September 2019 CDC article

The October 2019 National Public Radio Report: "Workers are Falling Ill, Even Dying, After Making Kitchen Countertops"

The April 2016 New York Times article: "Popular Quartz Countertops Pose a Risk to Workers" (article behind paywall)

What You Need to Know

The Natural Stone Institute's resource page on silica and the workplace (the best one-stop site, tailored for stone fabricators)

NIOSH resources on crystalline silica

“Severe Silicosis in Engineered Stone Fabrication Workers — California, Colorado, Texas, and Washington, 2017–2019” won’t be an eye-catcher on anyone’s best-seller list or hot webpage alert, but the CDC report is a landmark warning to fabricators to take silicosis seriously. The authors of the study found 18 cases of silicosis in assessing patients who worked at 15 shops in four states. Of the cases, 11 came from just three companies.

The study also estimates the United States’ total of fabrication shops at nearly 8,700, employing 96,000+ workers. The authors, with the small number of cases, don’t have an effective way of knowing how many workers nationwide are affected. It’s serious enough, however, to sound a public alarm.

The CDC rarely acts as an enforcement agency; this isn’t a movie like Contagion where agents clad in hazmat suits will flock into fabrication shops. Nor will this bring an onslaught of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors, given that the agency stopped its emphasis on crystalline-silica-hazard inspections two years ago (although the curtailment possibly had more to do with silica-sand use in fossil-fuel fracking than wayward fabrication shops).

The study, however, is likely to trigger inspections from municipal, regional or state health agencies, as well as local and state workplace regulators. The CDC report is also the firm footing needed for studies and research by health groups and graduate students to keep the issue coming back for a long, long time.

The Colorado section of the CDC study also gives pause in the reach of possible liability. All of the seven diagnosed silicosis cases in the state involved people working more than 10 years in the industry, with four noting 20+ years of employment – meaning that they had plenty of exposure before quartz surfaces became a mainstay of fabrication. The study also noted that two of the seven didn’t even cut or polish; they’d developed silicosis doing housecleaning duties, which extends the reach of silicosis beyond the door to the back shop.

The seven Colorado patients worked in 12 different fabrication shops from 1984-2018, which also opens a huge trapdoor on liability on where a worker suffered the most exposure during years of employment. Did the major exposure happen at another shop? Will years of going dry catch up with fabricators going to a wet shop later rather than sooner? Will the company issuing the last pay stub be left with the final cost?

Liability is the clarion call for lawyers, and the number of attorneys casting a net online to find clients began only days after release of the CDC document. They’re also likely to be more successful than the attempts in the last decade to try and find cancer-causing countertops. The CDC study will feed and energize an ongoing search for clients by attorneys, and ellos hablan español.

Don’t shrug this off as something for the quartz-surfaces folks, or the guys with the pickup truck and the rail saw fabricating in someone’s driveway. Although the CDC study cites engineered stone as the contributing source of the silicosis cases, the industry descriptions center on the stone fabrication industry, stone fabrication workers and stone fabrication employers. Inspectors and attorneys won’t go through business-license lists looking for engineered-stone shops; they’ll be looking for stone businesses. And, from day one, you’re going to be on the defensive.

Silicosis is a dangerous thing; it’s a disease that slowly builds for years into a deadly trauma. We’ve been warned, as fabricators, of its effects. Ignore it at the peril of your employees and your business, because there will be consequences.