As American manufacturing industries expand, so does the workforce that enables productive labor and outcome. For over a decade, the engineered stone industry has done just that by fulfilling consumers’ widespread demand for “quartz” countertops. While the artificial stone makes for durable kitchen and bathroom surfaces, the cutting and polishing process it goes through puts workers at risk of developing silicosis. Without proper safety methods and equipment, manual labor workers are left exposed to the hazardous components of engineered stone that lead to silicosis.
What is Silicosis?
Silicosis is lung disease that is caused by breathing in crystalline silica, a compound found in quartz and many other minerals. Almost 2 million U.S. workers are exposed to crystalline silica in several industries like construction, mining, and most recently engineered stone fabrication. The disease is characterized by the physical scarring and damage of the lungs. By inhaling silica for an extended period of time, the structure of the lungs weakens making it difficult for individuals to breathe. Other symptoms silicosis victims can experience include:
- Persistent cough
- Excess mucus
- Chest pain
- Bodily weakness
The severity of the symptoms can increase due to the progressive nature of the disease. Unfortunately, silicosis has also proven to be fatal in some cases, often leaving victims more susceptible to developing other illnesses like lung cancer and tuberculosis. Although the lack of enough treatment options for silicosis is discouraging, the ability to minimize the risk of exposure to silica is available.
In the engineered stone industry, manual labor workers could be saved from contracting silicosis if proper safety methods are promoted and protective equipment is used. However, the many U.S. countertop workers who have been diagnosed with silicosis prove that many companies have not adopted the regulations necessary for reducing risk of exposure.
In a series of reports examining silicosis in U.S. countertop workers, NPR highlights the various cutting methods and safety procedures that potentially limit exposure to silica. As the oldest known occupational hazard, silicosis is recognized as a preventable disease. Prevention is achieved by controlling the silica dust released when cutting stone materials. However, not all major engineered stone companies are implementing these methods. Here is what to look for:
Wet Methods and Vacuum Systems
When working with engineered stone, risk of exposure to silica dust is best minimized with the use of water. Water applied to cutting blades keeps the dust and physically damaging particles from flying into the air. Wetting down work surfaces where stone is cut reduces dust accumulation. Researchers suggest that the lack of effective dust controls in the workplace is why workers contract silicosis.
Despite stricter air quality requirements, some employers continue allowing a cheaper alternative processing method called dry cutting. The practice of dry cutting does not use water for dust control. It also does not require the use of costly specialized equipment, which appeals to some cost-conscious companies.
The American Lung Association also stresses the ability of vacuum systems to mitigate silica dust from the air. While this should be the minimum standard set by engineered stone companies, it is not the case when hearing from victims of silicosis. Jose Martinez, a 37-year old father and former stone cutter, recalled seeing dust everywhere at work, even in the places it should not be. As he awaits a potentially lifesaving lung transplant, it is disappointing to know that his disease could have been prevented with a few precautionary methods.
While sandblasting respirators may provide workers with protection from silica dust, they have not been utilized properly by companies. Many employees are not correctly fit-tested for respirators, making the masks loose or ineffective at keeping the dust out. Mostly however, it simply is not viable to rely on a respirator every day. The more productive method of preventing silica from being inhaled is by removing the dust from the air altogether. Therefore, preventative measures like wet cutting and vacuums are favored.
What Can Be Done About Risk?
While the presence of risk is constant in life, there are always steps that can be taken to ensure that it does not cost us our health or our lives. Developing silicosis is no different. Engineered stone companies know that it is a prevalent hazard in the industry, and yet still hesitate to adopt all necessary tools of prevention. Risk is minimized when effective protection methods are enacted, like those of wet cutting, vacuum systems, and sandblasting respirators.
How We Help Silicosis Victims
Seek justice with the help of our experienced attorneys. Our Dallas, Texas, silicosis law firm has battled corporate giants on behalf of individuals like you for 20 years, aggressively fighting those responsible for dangerous materials and the personal injury and lung diseases they caused. If you have suffered catastrophic injury or loss resulting from dangerous products, we can help.