Kitchen countertops made from engineered stone such as quartz are beautiful to look at and easy to clean. But that aesthetic and functionality come at a heavy price. That’s because countertop fabrication workers risk exposing themselves to silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust.
Fortunately, California has taken its first step toward addressing silicosis. The state Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board recently voted to expedite the creation of new regulations to protect workers from inhaling too much silica dust while building countertops.
The board’s decision comes after reports from the California Department of Public Health found that there have been at least 77 silicosis cases among engineered stone workers in California since 2019. 10 of those cases resulted in deaths.
What is silicosis?
Silicosis occurs when silica dust finds its way inside the deepest parts of the lungs, where the body can’t dispel them through coughing or mucus. The body then sends an inflammatory response to the particles, forming lesions over the silica dust. This scarred tissue builds up over time until it hardens the lungs and makes breathing difficult.
It takes a long while for the symptoms of silicosis to show, but higher exposures can produce health problems sooner and worse. The symptoms include:
- Chest pain
- Constant dry coughing
- Intense levels of fatigue
- Shortness of breath
There’s currently no cure for silicosis short of a lung transplant.
Workers’ compensation coverage for silicosis
Although regular stonecutting can also release silica dust, fabricating and shaping engineered stone produces even more particulates. This is because engineered stones such as quartz contain higher levels of silica, so workers that handle them are at higher risk of silicosis.
But those working with stone aren’t the only ones at risk. Silica dust exposure is also a risk to workers in mining, foundries and cement manufacturing.
It’ll take some time before legislators made new regulations to protect workers from silica dust exposure. But California currently has medical surveillance and treatment regulations that require companies that deal with silica to have their employees undergo a medical examination after 30 days on the job. Additional examinations are required at least every three years depending on the severity of the worker’s condition.
Workers’ compensation can pay for these tests, but employers and claims administrators might not immediately approve claims if the worker doesn’t show clear silicosis symptoms. If this happens, workers should consider consulting a legal professional for steps to appeal the denial of a claim.