The Los Angeles Times reported that dozens of California workers who cut stone slabs for countertops have developed silicosis.
According to the report, Los Angeles County is an epicenter for the disease, accounting for 60 of the 83 cases of countertop workers with silicosis reported since 2019.
While the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has standards intended to protect workers from exposure to crystalline silica dust, those standards are widely disregarded.
When the amount of silica dust in the air exceeds the permissible exposure limit of 50 micrograms per cubic meter, employers are required to implement engineering and work practice controls — for example, integrating a water delivery system into cutting tools to reduce dust — and provide workers with fit-tested respirators.
According to the Times report, many workers in an industrial stretch of Pacoima that houses countertop fabricators don’t have masks or cutting tools that spray water. In other cases, workers claim that masks they are given are inadequate.
An attorney who is suing manufacturers says many slabs are made using engineered stone that is “too dangerous to be used safely.”
The Department of Industrial Relations in a May 2023 memo acknowledged that engineered stone is more than 93% crystalline silica, compared to just 10% to 45% for granite.
The DIR also said it found “widespread noncompliance” with the state’s workplace safety standards for silica dust during a special emphasis program in 2019 and 2020. The agency estimated that 582 of 808 stone fabricating shops in the state — 72% of all such facilities — are likely out of compliance with the standards.
“Cal/OSHA expects that between 485 and 848 workers in the industry will develop silicosis; of these, between 92 and 161 could die of pulmonary fibrosis or respiratory failure, absent complete lung transplants,” the memo says.
Cal/OSHA recommended a special emphasis program to reevaluate worker exposures under an emergency temporary standard as early as January. If inspections show compliance with safety standards and no new silicosis cases are reported, Cal/OSHA recommends adopting the temporary standard on a permanent basis and continuing enforcement activities.
“However, if inspections continue to show widespread noncompliance, as occurred in the 2019-2020 (special emphasis program), Cal/OSHA recommends that an advisory committee be immediately convened to develop plans for prohibiting the use of engineered stone products in California, effective July 1, 2024, following the lead of the Australian government,” the memo says.