The Hidden Dangers of Silica Dust: Why Engineered Stone Countertops Pose Serious Health Risks

Our State of the Art Baca Robosaw Cuts with Both High Pressure Water and a Diamond Edge Blade. In both cases water is sprayed along the cutting surface to ensure a safe environment well within silica safety tolerances.

When fabricated and installed correctly, nothing beats quartz countertops for durability and looks. Recent news from California has highlighted the risks of purchasing quartz countertops from unsafe countertop fabricators. These bad actors are typically the cheapest of the cheap subcontractors, operating out of unmarked vans and trucks, often unlicensed and employing immigrants in exploitive “under-the-table” cash payment arrangements with no benefits and no safety net. If your fabricator is offering to cut countertops onsite, you might be putting both your jobsite and those countertop installers at risk. Silicosis is a serious lung disease caused by inhaling crystalline silica dust. In the countertop industry, workers who cut and finish stone slabs for countertops are at high risk. You can be too if your countertop installer is not taking care of their business and their team. Here’s what you need to know:

What is Silicosis?

Silicosis results from scarring of the lungs due to exposure to silica dust. It’s progressive, irreversible, and sometimes fatal. The disease develops when fine particles of crystalline silica are inhaled and become lodged in the lungs. Over time, these particles cause inflammation and scarring, leading to symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, and in severe cases, respiratory failure.

Why the Countertop Industry is at Risk

Engineered stone countertops, made from quartz-based composite materials, have become increasingly popular in homes and businesses. However, they contain high levels of silica (typically exceeding 90%), making them a significant health risk for workers who handle them. The fabrication process involves cutting, grinding, and polishing the stone, which releases fine silica dust into the air. Without proper safety measures, workers can inhale this dust, leading to the development of silicosis over time. Over the past 10-years many hand-fabrication focused shops have been founded. These shops do not cut or polish their material in a wet enviornment. Often time they ship raw slabs directly to jobsites and have the workers cut and polish the countertops dry, on-site. While there can be some touch-up work needed onsite, spending several hours fabricating material dry, as some of these shops do, is patently dangerous and frankly unecessary.

Why Should Customers Like You Care?

You might wonder why you should be concerned about the health risks associated with the countertop industry. Here are a few reasons:

  1. Health and Safety Advocacy: By understanding the risks, customers can advocate for safer working conditions. This includes ensuring that the companies they buy from prioritize worker safety by implementing stringent dust control measures and providing protective equipment.
  2. Informed Choices: Hygiene-conscious consumers often choose engineered stone for its non-porous surface, which is resistant to stains and bacteria. However, it’s crucial to balance these benefits with the potential health risks involved in its production.
  3. Ethical Responsibility: Supporting companies that prioritize the health and safety of their workers aligns with broader ethical and social responsibility. Customers can influence industry practices by choosing to buy from responsible fabricators.

Ask Your Countertop Fabricator About Their Safety Standards

To ensure that you are making informed and responsible choices, you should ask your countertop fabricators the following questions:

  1. Material Origin: Inquire about the source of the stone. Is it natural or engineered? If it is engineered, ask about the silica content. Understanding the material composition helps assess the potential health risks.
  2. Fabrication Practices: Ask how the countertops are cut, finished, and installed. Ensure that the fabricator follows safe practices, such as wet cutting, which reduces dust generation, and proper ventilation systems to control dust exposure.
  3. Worker Safety: Customers can advocate for worker safety by asking fabricators about the protective measures they have in place. This includes the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as respirators and gloves, and regular health screenings for workers to monitor any signs of silicosis.
  4. Certifications: Look for fabricators who follow safety guidelines and have certifications related to silica exposure. Certifications from reputable organizations indicate a commitment to maintaining high safety standards.

The Role of Regulations and Industry Standards

Regulations and industry standards play a critical role in protecting workers from the dangers of silica dust. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations set permissible exposure limits and require employers to implement control measures to minimize exposure. Customers can inquire if their fabricator complies with OSHA regulations or other relevant standards. If you see something that feels sketchy, it probably is sketchy and you can report your concerns to OSHA here.

Additionally, industry associations such as the International Surface Fabricators Association and the Natural Stone Institute and often provide guidelines and resources for best practices in handling silica-containing materials. Customers can ask if their fabricator is a member of such associations and adheres to their guidelines. Currently ISFA and the NSA are working on new industry guidelines intended to better regulate bad actors and to keep our workforce safe.

Conclusion: Unlicensed or Unsafe Countertop Contractors May Be Cheaper Options in the Short-Term but Much More Costly to Everyone’s Health and Safety

Engineered stone countertops offer aesthetic benefits and practical advantages, but customers can and should also prioritize safety from their fabricators. By asking informed questions and choosing responsible fabricators, they can support ethical practices that protect workers from the severe health risks associated with silica exposure. Understanding the hidden dangers of silica dust helps consumers make better choices, promoting a healthier and safer industry for everyone involved.

Tops Countertops is proud to maintain an above industry average safety rating with OSHA. We have been members of the NSI and ISFA for many years, and strive to continually improve our safety requirements. We utilize wet cutting and polishing equipment designed to minimize any danger from silica dust. Quartz CAN be sold and installed just as safely as tile, hardwood, or any other material and we are here to do your job safely, on-budget, and on-time.

The Tops Countertop Fabrication Team

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