Engineered stone countertops have become a common sight in kitchens and bathrooms over the past decade, thanks to their aesthetic appeal and durability when compared to purely natural materials. According to an NPR report, while sales and imports of the substance have recently spiked, health officials say that the manufacturing of these countertops comes at a great—or even fatal—risk for workers.
Recently, the CDC published a report that suggests that there’s cause for concern about the health of those who routinely work to produce engineered stone from materials like quartz, a type of crystalline silica. In workplaces where quartz is cut, polished, or ground, employees run the risk of contracting Silicosis by inhaling crystalline silica particles. According to the report, the lung disease “trigger[s] inflammation and fibrosis in the lungs, leading to progressive, irreversible, and potentially disabling disease.” There have been 18 confirmed cases of Silicosis among stone fabrication workers across California, Colorado, Texas, and Washington—with two of those cases so far resulting in the death of an employee. In both instances, the employee in question was under 40 years old.
While the rise in these cases is deeply concerning, they come as less of a surprise to those with knowledge of the regulatory climate for employees who work with quartz and other similar materials. “We knew we’d see more cases,” David Michaels, the former Occupational Safety and Health Administration head who pushed for more stringent limits that halved the amount of allowable airborne silica, told NPR. “It’s disappointing that OSHA hasn’t done anything to stop these cases from occurring. [They] were predictable, and they were preventable.”
The Trump administration ended OSHA’s national emphasis program for silica in 2017. This curtailed the organization’s ability to inspect workplaces that make these countertops in the absence of a complaint. As the CDC report states, many industry employees (and a majority of Silicosis cases so far) are Hispanic immigrants who might be wary of leveling a complaint.
For now, it’s on employers to police themselves. Methods for reducing crystalline silica dust include working with wet rather than dry stone, implementing air filtration systems, and using floor scrubbers to eliminate the wet silica before it can turn into dust.
But the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. The CDC report cites a 2018 test in Australia, which found that 12 percent of 799 at-risk employees examined had cases of Silicosis. And with quartz imports to the U.S. rising by roughly 800 percent between 2010 and 2018, there’s certainly cause for concern on this side of the Pacific.
In the absence of more stringent regulations, consumers can do their due diligence by checking a vendor’s accreditation with the National Stone Institute, an industry body that trains companies on silica mitigation best practices.