As awareness grows about the risk of silicosis among workers who cut engineered quartz for countertops, the stone industry is responding by providing safety training for fabrication shop employees. Silica, which is present in both engineered stone and some natural stones such as quartzite, is released as dust during countertop fabrication. Inhaling dry silica particles can cause inflammation and scarring of the lungs, making breathing difficult and potentially leading to debilitating and sometimes deadly illnesses.
As a design or building professional, there are questions you can ask and resources you can use to help determine whether the fabrication shop you use for engineered stone countertops is keeping its employees safe. Read on to learn about industry safety training programs to protect workers and how to choose a shop that follows safe practices.
Who Is at Risk From Silicosis — and Who Is Not
The risk for silicosis comes from repeated, prolonged exposure during fabrication, not when a counter is installed, says Mark Meriaux, accreditation and technical manager for the Natural Stone Institute, a stone industry trade organization.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has recommended limits for respirable crystalline silica exposure, which it calculates for an eight-hour period. The agency recently revised its National Emphasis Program to reduce or eliminate worker exposure to silica.
“We want to make clear that [silica danger] is not a consumer concern. The issue only arises from workers exposed to particles over a period of time,” Meriaux says. “OSHA averages exposure over an eight-hour workday and measures are set based on that eight-hour exposure.”
New Industry Training Programs
Caesarstone rolled out a new safety education program called Master of Stone in February at the Surfaces show in Las Vegas. It consists of seminars and online training that educate workers about the dangers of silica dust and safe techniques for cutting, drilling and polishing engineered quartz stone.
Elizabeth Margles, vice president of marketing for Caesarstone, advises builders and designers to visit fabrication shops if possible to see for themselves whether safety guidelines are being followed.
“A general contractor or builder can do this via an inspection, which is the best way to ensure the shop is well equipped with water cutting and polishing tools and that they are maintaining their equipment, enforcing safety measures and ensuring that employees are adhering to the personal and safety guidelines per OSHA,” she says. “They can also check with us to see who is a certified fabricator that has undertaken the Master of Stone program.”
The Natural Stone Institute has online courses, videos and certification training that includes best practices for working with stone slabs and silica. The group’s safety courses are free and a certificate is available that shows an individual has taken and passed all of the group’s Silica & Slab Safety courses. The group also has an accreditation program that offers third-party credentialing for stone fabricators and installers. People can do an online search for accredited fabricators who’ve been tested on proper fabrication methods and inspected for safety standards.
What to Look for in a Fabrication Shop
Be prepared to question fabrication shop owners about whether they practice safe handling of engineered stone, Meriaux says. “When working with shops’ best practices, [pros] can ask, ‘Have you had a voluntary inspection by OSHA?’ It’s a free service to those businesses, who can work with their local on-site consultation office and have [silica] levels measured,” he says.
Making sure a shop uses wet processes during fabrication is a good way to determine safe silica practices, Meriaux says. Using water during fabrication helps control silica dust. Safe practices include using wet saws to cut stone, cleaning floors with water instead of sweeping and having proper ventilation or filtration. Seeing workers wearing breathing masks is not necessarily a sign that safe practices are being used.
Silica and Its Health Effects
During the production of an engineered countertop material such as quartz, a resin is used to bind silica crystals. Engineered stones such as quartz are typically composed of at least 90% silica. When an engineered slab is cut or drilled, dry silica particles are released in the air and can settle on the floor and stick to workers’ clothing.
Silica is also present in varying amounts in natural stone. Silica content ranges from 95% in quartzite to anywhere from 10% to 45% in granite. Sandstone and soapstone have varying levels of silica. Marbles, travertines and limestones usually contain little or no silica.
Workers who inhale silica while cutting stone have an increased risk of lung infections, lung cancer, emphysema, autoimmune diseases and kidney disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency released a study in 2019 that focused on 18 cases of silicosis among workers in the stone fabrication industry in California, Colorado, Texas and Washington. Cases have also turned up among stone fabricators in Australia, Israel, Italy and Spain.
OSHA estimates there are more than 9,000 workers in the U.S. stone-cutting industry exposed to respirable crystalline silica and that, of those, more than 5,000 are exposed to levels considered unhealthy.
Steps to Take When Choosing a Stone Fabricator
Design and building professionals can feel confident that the product they select has been responsibly handled by knowing the questions to ask fabricators.
- Ask about the shop’s silica safety practices and whether it has had an OSHA inspection.
- Visit the shop to see working conditions.
- Determine if the shop uses wet fabrication practices, the preferred method for controlling silica dust.