Silicosis in the Manufacturing, Finishing, and Installation, of Countertops

Ever since the creation of the OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) standard, the emphasis has been on manufacturing companies that use silica containing materials and construction that use cement, concrete, and other materials that also contain silica. Later, it was discovered that employees who manufacture, finish, or install countertops may be exposed to RCS. Recently, OSHA has released a Hazard Alert specific to employees who are exposed when performing these tasks.

Exposure to RCS has been recognized for centuries as the cause of silicosis, an incurable lung disease that leads to disability and death. It also causes lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease. Exposure to RCS is related to the development of autoimmune disorders and cardiovascular impairment. 

On September 24, 2023, the Los Angeles Times published an article entitled, “California Workers Who Cut Countertops are Dying of an Incurable Disease”  It found that In California, RCS has begun to debilitate young workers, largely Latino immigrants, who cut and polish slabs of engineered stone. Instead of cropping up in people in their 60s or 70s after decades of exposure, it is now afflicting men in their 20s, 30s or 40s, said Jane Fazio, MD, a pulmonary critical care physician who became alarmed by cases she saw at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center. Some California patients have died in their 30s.

Employees who may be exposed to RCS in these industries should always make sure that the material being fabricated is wet before cutting. This is the most effective means to prevent silica particles from becoming airborne.  For employees who do installation, they can use tools such grinders that are water fed. For shops that use dry methods to fabricate counter tops, switching to wet methods can greatly reduce exposure to RCS.

Where this is not practical, local exhaust ventilation can be effective in controlling dust. In addition to these engineering controls, work practices can also help. These may include the use of wet sweeping or HEPA-filtered vacuuming instead of dry sweeping or the use compressed air. Soaking the slabs before cutting can also be effective in controlling dust. When engineering and work practice controls do not limit silica exposures to the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit,  employers must provide workers with respirators. 

The increase in silicosis and other diseases caused by exposure to RCS can be reduced. It is important that employees and individuals determine through testing and available information which jobs create high exposure. In addition, workers who manufacture, finish, and install countertops must receive training and follow best practices to limit exposure.

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