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Hazard Alert Aims to Protect Workers from Silica Exposure

By Graphic Products Editorial Staff

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health today jointly issued a hazard alert about protecting workers from significant crystalline silica exposure during manufacturing, finishing, and installing natural and manufactured stone countertops.

The hazard alert follows reports of 46 workers in Spain and 25 workers in Israel who developed silicosis - an incurable, progressively disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease - as a result of exposure to crystalline silica in their work manufacturing stone countertops.Ten of the workers in Israel required lung transplants as a result of their condition.

OSHA and NIOSH have identified exposure to silica as a health hazard to workers involved in stone countertop operations in the United States, both in fabrication shops and during in-home finishing/installation. The alert jointly issued by OSHA and NIOSH explains how this hazard can be mitigated with simple and effective dust controls.

Crystalline silica is found in granite, sandstone, quartzite, various other rocks and sand. Workers who inhale very small crystalline silica particles are at risk for silicosis. Symptoms of silicosis can include shortness of breath, cough and fatigue, and may or may not be obviously attributable to silica. Workers exposed to airborne crystalline silica also are at increased risk for lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease.

Silica is one of the most common elements on our planet’s surface. It is frequently raised as clouds of dust during mining, sandblasting, construction, and excavation. Once those tiny, gritty particles are inhaled, they get stuck in the lungs, and the body has no way to get rid of them. Over time, the buildup of silica makes it difficult for lungs to work normally, leaving the victim constantly short of breath.

If that buildup was the end of the problem, it wouldn’t be so bad, but there’s more. The human body uses natural inflammation and immune responses to try and clean up, but they only make the problem worse. The name of this condition is “silicosis,” which reflects its origins. If allowed to continue, the condition slowly fills the lungs with scar tissue (a process called “pulmonary fibrosis”). Once silicosis develops this far, the only effective treatment is a lung transplant; otherwise, the victim will eventually suffocate.

Silicosis is rare in modern America, because of widespread awareness in the affected industries, and because of the availability of respirators and other modern tools that limit the inhalation of harmful dust. However, this has not always been the case. Miners in the Old West used picks, shovels and dynamite in “dry” mining processes, raising huge clouds of dust in their search for silver and gold; in spite of the “miner’s mustaches,” many of them died.

The 1930 construction of the Hawk's Nest Tunnel in West Virginia resulted in at least 400 (by some estimates, well over 1,000) deaths from silicosis. And even today, parts of the world with poor working conditions still have widespread silicosis and early death.

The hazard alert details what can be done at stone countertop fabrication and installation worksites to protect workers from exposure to silica. This includes monitoring the air to determine silica exposure levels; using engineering controls and safe work practices to control dust exposure; and providing workers with respiratory protection when needed, training, and information about the hazards of silica. Respiratory protection is commonly among the top 10 OSHA violations each year.