Silicosis Cases Soar Among Young California Workers

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A worker working in silica industry

In an industrial area of Pacoima, workers toiled away in workshops, handling large slabs of speckled stone while the whining of saws competed with Spanish-language rock music. As they worked, pale dust swirled around them, and many of them were without masks. Some had machines with water to control dust, but others lacked any effective means to contain the airborne particles. 

Maria Cabrera, a community outreach worker with the nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful, approached the workers at the Branford Street site. She carried flyers about silicosis, a debilitating and incurable lung disease that has afflicted numerous workers in California, leading to premature deaths. Cabrera urged the workers to take precautions because silicosis is caused by inhaling tiny particles of crystalline silica, commonly found in materials like stone, while cutting and grinding it. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, while silicosis is not a new disease, recent research indicates that it has become an escalating problem, particularly among young Latino immigrants working with engineered stone countertops. Unlike traditional natural stone, engineered stone contains significantly higher levels of silica, making it more hazardous to work with. Workers inhaling the dust from this material can suffer from silicosis, leading to breathing difficulties, weakness, and ultimately, lung failure. 

In the past, silicosis typically afflicted individuals in their 60s or 70s, after decades of exposure. However, alarming cases of the disease are now affecting workers in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, some of whom have died in their 30s. Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary critical care physician, noted the emergence of such cases at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, describing these young patients as having a “terminal diagnosis. 

One such patient is a 27-year-old father from Pacoima, Leobardo Segura Meza, who can no longer enjoy activities with his children due to his deteriorating health. For a decade, he worked with stone countertops, enduring constant exposure to dust with inadequate protection. Silicosis has robbed him of his ability to run, exercise, and even work. He now relies on an oxygen tank, and his life has been forever altered by a disease he had never heard of before his diagnosis. 

Silicosis is a devastating illness with no known cure. Lung transplants offer a glimmer of hope, but the demand for suitable lungs far exceeds the supply. Tragically, some of Segura Meza’s coworkers have died while waiting for transplants. Cabrera and Vasquez educated these workers about the disease, emphasizing the importance of using wet saws to minimize airborne dust and NIOSH-approved respirators to protect against inhaling silica particles.

Workplace safety guidelines recommend several measures to protect workers, such as water spraying systems, ventilation, vacuum systems, and comprehensive respirators when necessary. Silicosis poses a serious risk to workers in the industry, with estimates varying, but some studies indicating that approximately 20% of stone workers in Australia have the disease. In California, regulators estimate that out of approximately 4,000 industry workers, between 485 and 848 may develop silicosis, and up to 161 could die from it. 

Recent research conducted by UCLA and UCSF physicians found that nearly one-fifth of California workers who contracted silicosis from grinding countertops had died, with a median age at death of 46. Delayed diagnoses were common, as the disease was frequently mistaken for other conditions. Over one-third of patients already had severe lung scarring when diagnosed. 

Los Angeles County has been hit particularly hard by the silicosis epidemic, with 60 out of 83 cases among countertop workers reported in the state since 2019. The increasing awareness of the disease, driven in part by concerned physicians like Fazio, has led to more accurate reporting of cases in Los Angeles. 

To address this growing crisis, California workplace safety regulators are developing emergency rules to protect workers in the engineered stone countertop industry. This material, also known as artificial or synthetic stone, contains high levels of crystalline silica, making it particularly hazardous.

Additionally, Los Angeles County is considering a potential ban on the sale and installation of “silica engineered stone” altogether. While existing safety standards must be followed, authorities believe that further changes are needed to ensure workplace safety. Dr. Nichole Quick of the L.A. County public health department emphasizes the importance of taking action to protect workers from this preventable disease. 

However, Raphael Metzger, an attorney representing workers suing engineered stone manufacturers for damages, argues that standard safety measures do not go far enough. Even with “wet methods” to control dust, workers can still be exposed to dangerous levels of silica. Metzger believes that the industry should be banned entirely, as it is too hazardous to be used safely. 

Consumers are largely unaware of the risks posed by engineered stone countertops. With engineered stone comprising over 60% of countertop materials and its popularity expected to rise, more needs to be done to inform consumers about the potential harm to workers behind the scenes. In Australia, where a ban on engineered stone is being considered, experts argue that the high silica concentration in these materials makes it challenging to adequately protect workers with conventional safety measures.

They recommend either banning engineered stone with more than 10% crystalline silica or banning it entirely. In California, investigations have revealed widespread violations of safety standards in the stone cutting and polishing industry. Cal/OSHA is now urgently working on drafting new safety standards to protect workers. Despite the rise of silicosis cases, little has been done to inform homeowners and consumers about the dangers associated with the countertops they purchase. 

As the debate over the safety of engineered stone continues, urgent action is needed to protect the health and lives of workers in this industry. The epidemic of silicosis among young workers is a tragic reminder of the hazards they face, and the responsibility to safeguard their well-being rests with both industry stakeholders and regulators. Consumers also have a role to play by demanding transparency and safer practices in the countertop industry. 

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