No Simple Dust-Up
A flurry of activity this summer could have long-term effects on the entire industry.
By Emerson Schwartzkopf
The emphasis may be on regulating quartz surfaces in California in 2023, but the blowback may end with a closer look at your shop … no matter where you’re located. If you’re unfamiliar with the details, go here for a summary of all the action this year. Frankly, it’s hard to keep up with the story, which seems to change on a weekly, if not daily, basis. The gist is that silicosis cases among California workers fabricating quartz surfaces – the official terminology is “engineered stone” – led to health professionals lobbying earlier this year for stricter controls on quartz-surface fabrication. That led to California’s workplace-safety board directing Cal/OSHA to come up with emergency rules to implement sometime this fall. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, however, went further in early June by requesting its staff to draw up ordinances to ban the use of quartz-surfaces within its jurisdiction – which happens to be some 10 million peoplein the second-largest metropolitan area in the United States. The supervisors also set a 90-day deadline that expires Sept. 6. Yes, the state of California and the L.A. County Supervisors can do this. The state can enact stricter regulations than the federal government (OSHA), and California counties can go a step further. The L.A. County Supervisors are not the typical commissioner board of Al the hardware-store owner, Janice the real-estate agent, and Howard the farmer down at the courthouse. This is the most-powerful municipal- or county-level government in the United States, and it’s stood up to more-powerful lobbies (outdoor advertising/billboards and the National Football League, for two) than anything the hard-surfaces industry could muster. The chances of an outright ban in Los Angeles County, or anywhere else in the United States, are pretty slim. From the initial stirrings about the issue earlier this year, hard-surface-industry representatives – including the Natural Stone Institute – began working with California regulators. There’s been initial agreement on addressing the problem with increased education, and something along the lines of training and increased monitoring of shops should provide a reasonable alternative to outright prohibition. This will take a few months, and some signs of progress should cause Los Angeles County to defer immediate action on a ban. Going wet might seem to be the quick and definitive answer, although that may not be enough. A study published in late July as part of the esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of silicosis cases among 52 stoneworkers in California found that 45% of them were in a shop that used “water-suppression methods.” The JAMA study is also a sign that the focus on silicosis and fabrication isn’t going away; a similar fabrication study in 2019 caused some public debate before COVID-19 monopolized health concerns. The fact that the new study covers cases discovered after 2019 isn’t exactly a stellar image. The problem isn’t with fabricators committed to the trade and their workers; the likely source is with shops in the IKAG part of the building trade. IKAG – as in “I know a guy” – is the get-it-done-cheap, non-regulated pool of way-under-the-radar businesses offering ways for contractors and builders to shave time and costs on projects as small as a single kitchen up to commercial construction. It’s low-profile and often illegal work, and increased enforcement is the penalty everyone pays to try to get rid of it. Greater efforts in education and training, along with extensive outreach by all parts of the hard-surface industry, may also bring many of these businesses into compliance. The spotlight on silicosis and fabrication isn’t going away, and it shouldn’t; people are dying because of their work. It’s tragic and wrong no matter where you are, and California is giving us the initial warning that people outside the industry are paying attention. Nor should you write this off as crazies from the Left Coast who can’t affect you. The alternative to banning quartz surfaces – now being advanced in Australia – is to cut silica content in any material to 40%. Manufacturers such as Cosentino already have 40% or less silica-content slabs in the mix, and if there’s going to be change for a market of 25.6 million people, it’s not hard to see major shifts for Los Angeles County’s 10 million, or California’s 39.4 million, or for the entire United States to cover all bases. It isn’t much of a stretch to see silica limitations with materials go beyond the West Coast, either, meaning that everything – including natural stone – will need to show the amount of silica content. Not all granite, for example, is going to make the 40% cut. And you don’t want to be playing Hide-The-Quartzite if health inspectors appear at the front door. You’ll see more efforts from the hard-surface industry very soon. Support them and participate. It’ll benefit everyone in the short-term and, hopefully, keep people alive.