US Countertop Workers Falling Ill from Silica Dust

US Countertop Workers Falling Sick from Silica Dust

More and more cases of countertop workers getting sick indicates the hazards are cutting Silestone, a material made of quartz that releases dangerous silica.

United States physicians have identified at least 18 countertop workers with silicosis thus far, and the data shows it might be increasing. Officials worry more cases are out there, given that the countertop fabrication industry in the U.S. has around 100,000 workers.

One case demonstrates the severity of the situation at hand. Ulbester Rodriguez is from Mexico, and he came the United States at age 14. He spoke no English, did not receive a formal education, and worked in restaurant kitchens until changing jobs and working with countertop cutting.

Since 2000, Rodriguez has worked on cutting and polishing slabs of an artificial stone to make kitchen and bathroom countertops. He said the stuff looked a lot like natural granite, but in reality, it was made in a factory from bits of quartz bound together by a resin.

According to NPR, this kind of engineered stone marketed as “quartz” is now one of the most popular options for kitchen and bathrooms in the United States.

However, this stuff has proven to be a serious hazard, especially when its dust is inhaled. Many workers have gotten sick and even died after cutting this engineered stone and breathing its dust, say public health issues. Some groups are even calling for a ban on selling engineered quartz for countertops.

Rodriguez’s case is the first of many, and he was the first person to have fallen ill in the U.S. His lungs are so damaged that he is on oxygen about six hours a day. Unfortunately, he will likely need a lung transplant.

Since Rodriguez’s case, physicians have identified at least 18 more workers with silicosis.

Rodriguez has sued his employer for causing his illness, saying, “In the beginning I was angry, but I was angry with me. When I moved from the restaurant to this company, I was getting more money. Because of that change, I ruined my life,” he said. “Then I just realized that it wasn’t just me. It was the whole company—that they don’t protect their employees.”

The shop Rodriguez worked for is run by Cosentino, a group headquartered in Spain that started selling engineered quartz in Europe in 1990 under the brand name Silestone. In 1997, the company brought Silestone to a new market by forming a subsidiary called Cosentino North America.

And its appeal caught on quickly. Silestone’s durability and resistance to stains was huge for kitchen designers, and it was featured in Time and Good Housekeeping. After that, business grew rapidly, and the company partook in promotional videos through groups like Home Depot and even Super Bowl advertisements.

However, competitors popped up, too, with brand names like Caesarstone, Zodiaq, and Cambria. Cosentino also operated its own network of shops called Stone Systems, and it came to have dozens of locations around the U.S. Over time, more and more companies introduced slabs of engineered quartz to the market.

But why is dry cutting the kiss of death? Back when Rodriguez started working for the company, the cutting, was done dry which means no water is sprayed on the stone to keep dust from flying in the air.

While the company’s practice has since changed, Rodriguez worked among flying dust particles for years. He did a variety of jobs to process the slabs, coated in dust from his own cutting and that of his co-workers.

“We see dust everywhere. Even on the floor, in our hair, in all our bodies, I mean everywhere,” recalls Rodriguez.

Health officials have often warned against dry cutting, pointing out that dust from cut stone is potentially dangerous if it contains the mineral silica, which can cause lung disease called silicosis. The lungs become inflamed and develop scars. There is no cure, the disease is progressive, and people with silicosis essentially suffocate.

However, this hazard is really not new information. Silicosis is one of the oldest known occupational hazards. In the 1930s, the Department of Labor even made a workplace safety film called Stop Silicosis, which emphasized that silicosis could be prevented by controlling dust with water sprays and vacuum systems.

However, none of this information was supposedly communicated to Rodriguez by his employer. His employer did not explain anything about Silestone’s makeup, the fact that it’s made from mostly quartz, and it contains a lot of silica. Silestone can be as much as 90 percent crystalline silica—twice as much as natural granite.

The only thing his employer warned him about was injuries related to cutting, for example. He explained that no mention of potential lung disease was ever communicated.

“They don’t tell us anything about the product,” he told NPR. “Nothing.”

What’s worse, the company has seemingly evaded proper evaluations for safety and employee programs. During Rodriguez’s lawsuit against the company, internal documents showed that in 2002, a couple years after Rodriguez started working there, a safety consultant noted that the facility had not been evaluated for employee silica exposure, and he had recommended an assessment. However, a firm hired to help the company run a safety program did no such testing, and a document refers to the concerns about the cost of lab tests.

In 2016, the lawsuit was settled confidentially, with no admission of liability. Neither Cosentino nor Stone Systems made public statements regarding the legal proceeding or the documents associated.

Just 10 years after beginning work with Cosentino, Rodriguez noticed serious health problems that affected his day-to-day. He had to stop playing soccer for fun because he got tired very easily. He developed a persistent cough, and after getting some X-rays done, the doctor told him he had severe silicosis at 33 years old.

Rodriguez had never heard the term before.

He told his bosses about his diagnosis, and they transferred him to another position in an office and away from the silica. But this was no fix—Rodriguez was devastated. He can remember praying to God in church, telling God “‘Look, I don’t know if I can handle it myself.’” Then, he had started crying.

Around the time of Rodriguez’s diagnosis, the company had just begun to issue warnings around the shop of risk of silicosis, and it had not tested the workplace air until just the year previous. The 2009 inspection of the air showed that silica exposure levels were well above the legal limit in three of seven workers who wore monitoring devices to assess the air quality around them.

Still, a 2011 round of air tests had the same results: three of seven monitored workers above the permissible exposure limit, and employees still at risk.

This was the case even though all the processes including cutting and grinding were using water to keep down the dust.

The company says it believed it was taking the necessary measures to protect employees, especially since the early 2000s. Travis Dupre, the current vice president of sales for Stone Systems, testified and said the following:

“We felt like we were doing what was reasonable. We had switched everything to wet grinding. We had moved into a facility with better ventilation. We’d enforced no dry cutting. We felt like we were taking the reasonable steps.”

Respirators don’t really solve the problem, either. The company Rodriguez worked for did not start giving workers fitted respirators until 2002, and even then, workers would use towels or old ones when new ones were not available.

Plus, government regulations say that relying on respirators should only be used as a last resort, especially if silica dust in the environment can’t be adequately controlled with other measures such as vacuums or water.

Silicosis is no new issue, but unfortunately, dozens of cases still occur each year. It’s important for employers to educate their workers on the workplace’s associated risks, to enforce proper PPE and safety measures every day, and to conduct routine testing to avoid jeopardizing workers’ safety.

To learn more about silica cases around the U.S. and overseas, visit the NPR article.

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