Engineered stone is increasingly popular as a material for kitchen and bathroom countertops, but installing it is a dusty business.
“If you go to the bathroom, it’s dust. When we go to take lunch, on the tables, it’s dust,” one veteran stone worker told NPR. “Your nose, your ears, your hair, all your body, your clothes — everything. When you walk out of the shop, you can see your steps on the floor, because of the dust.”
Unfortunately, most of that dust is silica. Silica dust has long been recognized as a health hazard. It can cause a progressive lung disease called silicosis, which has no treatment beyond lung transplants.
The stone worker who spoke to NPR has been diagnosed with silicosis. He often feels weak or dizzy, and he has chest pain. He is unable to play active games or run around with his children. Two of his coworkers, also diagnosed with silicosis, died last year.
A recent report detailed 18 cases of silicosis, including two deaths, among people who worked installing engineered stone countertops. An epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told NPR that she worries we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Engineered stone contains much more silica than natural stone
While engineered stone isn’t thought to be dangerous once installed, it produces a large amount of silica dust when it is cut, ground or polished. While granite contains only about 45% silica and marble 10% or less, engineered stone is about 90% silica. It is basically made from a crystalline silica resin with bits of quartz embedded inside to make it look like natural stone.
A trade organization for engineered stone manufacturers told NPR in a statement that silicosis and other dust-related diseases are associated with the unsafe handling of many materials, not just engineered stone. Furthermore, the group says that engineered stone is perfectly safe when installed according to manufacturer-recommended practices.
Are safe installation practices being followed?
Installation using recommended practices may not be happening. According to a recent Australian study, at least 12% of stone countertop installers had silicosis.
In the U.S., there are perhaps 8,000 stone fabrication businesses around the country. Of these, a large portion are small businesses that may not be in a good position to understand the danger and mitigate the risk, such as by providing the appropriate personal protective equipment.
The danger isn’t limited to those who work with engineered stone directly, either. One doctor interviewed by NPR said that even housekeepers at engineered stone companies have been affected just from sweeping up the dust.
It’s crucial to control silica dust
According to an epidemiologist who used to run the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that OSHA issued a hazard alert on both natural and engineered stone countertops due to silica dust. In 2016, OSHA cut the allowable silica dust in workplace air by half. Unfortunately, the Trump administration recently eliminated OSHA’s national emphasis program for silica dust, although it continues to enforce the 2016 standard.
Silica dust can be controlled in a number of ways, including by working the stone while wet. Workplaces can be tested for airborne silica, and methods can be introduced to reduce it.
Every company has a legal responsibility to provide a reasonably safe workplace. If your company isn’t controlling silica dust, you could be at risk. You should consider hiring an attorney to advise you of your rights.