Cutting and shaping artificial or “engineered” stone is linked to severe and irreversible lung injuries, according to occupational disease researchers in the United States and around the world. American doctors have seen a rise in cases, including fatalities, and experts fear many more are likely in the coming years.
The better news is that the industry knows how to prevent these devastating injuries. Working with such materials does not have to cause lung damage. Consumers, regulators, managers, workers and courts can help the industry make necessary changes to protect workers.
Artificial countertops and deadly silicosis
The popularity of engineered stone for kitchen and bathroom countertops has skyrocketed by 800% in the last decade. Today, more than 8,000 stone fabrication businesses employ nearly 100,000 workers.
Engineered stone is made almost entirely of the mineral silica which, if inhaled, can cause the progressive lung disease silicosis. It has no cure other than lung transplantation.
Outbreaks of silicosis have appeared in recent years in Israel, Italy and Spain. In Australia, a recent study found 12% of countertop cutters suffered from the disease. North America saw its first engineered stone-related patients five years ago and several states have since reported more.
Some cases affected housekeeping workers whose duties involved only sweeping up after the shop closed for the night.
Preventing the disease and changing the workplace
Getting enough control over the dust can eliminate the danger essentially completely. One Colorado employer told NPR they tested the shop air for silica levels (their insurer was willing to pay for the testing) and reduced the concentration significantly by consistently working the stone “wet.” Using a special vacuum for the floors then made the levels often undetectable.
Consumers can check that the suppliers they use are accredited by the natural Stone Institute, and by taking a look around the shop and showroom themselves. If they see dust, the workers are likely inhaling it regularly.
Finally, political pressure is being applied to compel and enable OSHA to focus on the problem. Healthy and sick workers alike, as well as their loved ones, can know the law is able to hold employers accountable for unsafe workplaces and for compensating those who have suffered damage due to their negligence.