The Impact of Silica Dust from Quartz Countertops on Immigrant Workers

In recent years, engineered stone countertops have taken the American kitchen design industry by storm. With their wide variety of colors and patterns, as well as their less porous surface compared to natural stone options like granite, these countertops have become increasingly popular among homeowners looking to upgrade their kitchens. However, as the demand for engineered stone has grown, so too has the concern over the occupational health hazards posed by silica dust exposure in the stone fabrication industry, particularly for immigrant workers who make up a significant portion of the workforce.

Have you become seriously ill after being exposed to silica dust from quartz countertops? At Bailey Javins & Carter LC., we believe that everyone, regardless of their class or status, deserves justice. Call our Atlanta office today at 678-981-5370 for a free consultation.

The Hidden Danger: High Silica Content in Engineered Stone

Engineered stone, also known as cultured or manufactured stone, or simply quartz, is composed of approximately 93 percent silica, which is mixed with polyester resin to create a durable and attractive countertop material. In comparison, natural granite has a silica content ranging from 10 to 45 percent, making the engineered stone a far more potent source of silica dust when cut, ground, or polished.

The process of fabricating engineered stone countertops involves the use of powered hand tools, such as saws, grinders, and high-speed polishers, which generate significant amounts of silica dust. Workers who operate these tools are at the highest risk of exposure, as the fine particles of silica become airborne and can be easily inhaled.

Silicosis: A Progressive and Irreversible Lung Disease

Inhalation of silica dust can lead to the development of silicosis, a progressive, debilitating, and incurable lung disease that causes permanent damage to the respiratory system. Silicosis occurs when silica particles become trapped in the lungs, causing inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue. Over time, this scarring can lead to a reduction in lung capacity, difficulty breathing, and an increased risk of other respiratory infections, such as tuberculosis.

There are three main types of silicosis, depending on the level and duration of exposure to silica dust:

  • Acute silicosis: Develops after a short period of exposure to high levels of silica dust, often within a few weeks or months. Symptoms may include severe shortness of breath, fever, and cough.
  • Chronic silicosis: Occurs after long-term exposure to lower levels of silica dust, typically over a period of 10 years or more. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain, and a persistent cough.
  • Accelerated silicosis: Develops within 5 to 10 years of initial exposure to moderate to high levels of silica dust. Symptoms are similar to those of chronic silicosis but progress more rapidly.

In severe cases, silicosis can lead to respiratory failure and death. Unfortunately, once silicosis has developed, there is no cure, and the damage to the lungs is irreversible.

Disproportionate Impact on Immigrant Workers

While silica dust exposure poses a risk to all workers in the stone fabrication industry, immigrant workers are disproportionately affected by this hazard. Many immigrants find employment in this sector, often in lower-paying positions with inadequate safety protections. Language barriers, fear of job loss or deportation, and limited access to healthcare and legal resources can all contribute to an increased vulnerability to silica dust exposure and its health consequences.

Socioeconomic Factors

Immigrant workers in the stone fabrication industry often find themselves in lower-paying jobs with hazardous working conditions. The fear of losing their jobs may make these workers hesitant to speak up about safety concerns or to report unsafe working conditions to their supervisors or relevant authorities. This silence can perpetuate the cycle of exposure and illness, as employers may not feel pressured to improve safety measures or comply with OSHA regulations.

Language Barriers

Language barriers can also contribute to the disproportionate impact of silica dust exposure on immigrant workers. Many immigrants may have difficulty understanding safety training and instructions provided in English, which can lead to improper use of protective equipment or failure to follow safety protocols. Additionally, language barriers can hinder workers’ ability to communicate their health concerns to supervisors or healthcare providers, delaying diagnosis and treatment of silica-related illnesses.

Access to Healthcare and Legal Resources

Immigrant workers often face challenges in accessing adequate healthcare and legal resources. Many may lack health insurance or have limited coverage, making it difficult to seek medical attention for respiratory symptoms or to undergo necessary screening for silicosis. Moreover, immigrant workers may be unfamiliar with their legal rights and the resources available to them in cases of occupational illness, such as workers’ compensation or potential third-party lawsuits against manufacturers or suppliers.

Inadequate Safety Measures and Enforcement

The high prevalence of silicosis among workers in the stone fabrication industry can be attributed, in part, to inadequate safety measures and enforcement of OSHA regulations. Silica dust exposure is preventable with proper dust reduction techniques, such as wet-cutting methods, local exhaust ventilation, and the use of appropriate respiratory protection. However, many fabrication shops fail to implement these measures consistently or effectively.

Much of the failure and compliance stems from the lack of adequate enforcement from agencies like OSHA. Inspections are so infrequent at these shops that, in some cases, it could be years or even decades before one of them is ever visited. This lack of regular oversight and enforcement allows hazardous conditions to persist, putting workers at risk of developing silicosis and other silica-related illnesses.

While some states, such as California, have taken steps to increase enforcement efforts through their own occupational safety and health administrations (like CalOSHA), many other parts of the country still lack adequate oversight. This inconsistency in enforcement can create a patchwork of safety conditions across the industry, leaving some workers more vulnerable than others.

Challenges in Medical Diagnoses

Compounding the problem of inadequate safety measures and enforcement is the challenge of accurately diagnosing silicosis and other silica-related illnesses. Many healthcare providers may not be familiar with the occupational health hazards associated with the stone fabrication industry, leading to missed or delayed diagnoses.

A crucial step in identifying potential silica dust exposure is taking a detailed occupational history. This involves inquiring about a patient’s current job duties, as well as any past employment in industries known to have a high risk of silica exposure. For immigrant workers, who may have multiple jobs or a history of temporary or seasonal work, this process can be particularly complex.

In addition to a thorough occupational history, medical testing for silicosis typically includes chest X-rays and breathing tests, such as spirometry. These tests can help identify the characteristic lung changes associated with silicosis, such as the presence of small, rounded opacities on chest X-rays or a restrictive pattern on spirometry.

Early diagnosis of silicosis is critical for slowing the progression of the disease and preventing further lung damage. However, once silicosis has reached an advanced stage, the damage is irreversible, and the disease may continue to worsen even after exposure to silica dust has stopped.

Get Strong Legal Guidance from Our Experienced Quartz Countertop Silicosis Lawyers

The disproportionate impact of silica dust exposure on immigrant workers in the stone fabrication industry is a serious public health issue that demands immediate attention and action. The high silica content in engineered stone countertops, combined with inadequate safety measures and enforcement, has created a perfect storm of risk for these vulnerable workers.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with silicosis or another occupational illness related to silica dust exposure, we urge you to contact the team at Bailey Javins & Carter today. We are here to listen to your story, provide guidance, and fight for the compensation and justice you deserve.

Call us today at 678-981-5370 or reach out to us online to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation and case assessment. We are ready to go to work for you!