News Release

Engineered-stone fabrication workers at risk of severe lung disease

September 26, 2019

TUMWATER — Exposure to silica dust from cutting and grinding engineered stone countertops has caused severe lung disease in workers in Washington and three other states.

Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released information on cases in Washington, California, Colorado and Texas in an article published in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. According to the article, 18 cases of silicosis have been identified in four states from 2017-2019. Two of those workers died from the illness.

Silicosis is an incurable lung disease caused by breathing silica dust. Most of those sickened worked with engineered stone, a manufactured stone made primarily from quartz.

The Washington Department of Labor & Industries’ (L&I) Safety & Health Assessment & Research for Prevention (SHARP) program identified the case here and is alerting employers about this serious worker health concern.

“Engineered stone can contain high amounts of silica. Exposure to that dust makes countertop fabrication highly hazardous,” said Carolyn Reeb-Whitaker, a SHARP occupational respiratory disease investigator. “Employers need to know how important it is to control and monitor for silica dust, and to educate their workers.”

Once installed, intact countertops containing silica are not harmful for in-home everyday use. 

Risk for workers

Breathing in silica dust can lead to silicosis, a disabling, irreversible, and sometimes fatal lung disease. Symptoms of silicosis usually show up 15 to 20 years after exposure, but can occur after only five to 10 years – or earlier, if exposures have been very high.

Exposure to silica occurs whenever silica dust is in the air, like when workers saw, grind, polish, shape, or install natural or engineered stone. People who work with engineered stone are most at risk. Workers can also be exposed when sweeping dry, dusty floors or cleaning dusty clothing or equipment.

A Washington worker in his 30s was diagnosed with silicosis in 2018 after about six years of breathing silica dust while working as a stone countertop fabricator. He is facing serious health issues and is being considered for a lung transplant. That same year, two California workers in their 30s died from silicosis attributed to their work at a stone fabrication company.

Exposure to silica dust can also cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), kidney disease, and lung cancer. It can also increase the risk of tuberculosis (TB) and other lung infections.

“Diagnosing these conditions early can mean everything to workers and their families. Countertop workers should talk with their doctor if they are regularly exposed to dust or if they have breathing problems,” said Reeb-Whitaker. 

Protecting workers

Silicosis is preventable. Last spring, L&I issued a hazard alert to warn companies and workers in Washington who fabricate, finish, or install natural or engineered stone countertops about the risks of exposure to silica dust.

Under state and federal law, employers are required to take specific actions to minimize silica exposure, such as providing safety education and training to their workers and controlling and monitoring for silica dust. When silica dust exceeds certain levels, respiratory protection is required and exposed employees are required to have a medical exam.

Workers should change clothes and wash their hair before leaving work to prevent spreading silica dust to their cars or homes. 

SHARP is working with the other states involved, as well as the CDC, to track and monitor for additional cases and share information.

Employers are encouraged to get help for their business and their workers by contacting the SHARP program at 888-66-SHARP (888-667-4277) or Health care providers are also encouraged to contact SHARP to report cases of silicosis. 

For media information:

Tim Church, Public Affairs, 360-902-5673.

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