Across America, fancy countertops are all the rage. Tragically, some of the workers who cut these slabs of granite, marble and engineered stone are getting silicosis, a lung disease from inhaling crystalline silica dust generated during the cutting, shaping, grinding or polishing processes.
Dangerously dusty workplaces
NPR did a comprehensive Morning Edition show and article on this problem in October. The online article has links to government and other resources and reports about this risk of being a counter cutter, of which there are almost 100,000 across the country. In addition, people who sweep and clean up the dust in these workplaces also have exposure to the silica dust, according to NPR, citing an occupational health physician.
According to the American Lung Association, silicosis can develop quickly after exposure or years later. Inhaling the microscopic, hard quartz compound found in many rocks can cause lung damage and permanent scarring, resulting potentially in coughing, fever, chest pain, problems breathing, phlegm or wheezing. Over time as the scarring advances, symptoms associated with chronic lung disease may develop like blue lips, swelling of the legs or fast breathing rates. Silicosis is a progressive disease that can eventually be fatal. The only treatment for silicosis is a lung transplant.
Artificial rock more dangerous than genuine stone
Silica is widespread in various rocks, including granite, marble, sandstone and especially quartz, but engineered countertops made from tiny bits of quartz mixed into a resin have about 90% silica, so counter cutters working with engineered stone are at highest risk of all counter materials.
NPR reports that under the Trump administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s national emphasis program for silica was terminated, which scrapped a plan for targeted inspections of this industry. Silica levels are still subject to a 2016 regulation.
Keeping a countertop cutting operation safe from dangerous silica levels involves controlling generated dust, which can be done using air filtration systems and keeping the countertop slabs wet while working with them. NPR describes one shop that brought down silica levels dramatically using a floor scrubber like a Zamboni first thing each morning to remove dust residue.
One Australian doctor recommends that a person who has worked with engineered stone for over three years – or who dry-cut it for over one year – should have a high-resolution CT scan of the lungs to monitor for injury from silica dust, whether or not they used any kind of respiratory protection.
Any countertop cutter in Illinois who suspects silica exposure or who already has silicosis should speak with a lawyer about how to handle their employer and about potential legal remedies through workers’ compensation or Social Security Disability Insurance.