Workers Who Spent Their Careers Cutting Quartz Countertops Are Now Falling Ill

By: Georgia McKoy | Published: Feb 17, 2024

Engineered stone countertops, made from crushed quartz, are increasingly popular in U.S. homes for their aesthetic appeal and heat resistance. 

However, they contain high levels of crystalline silica, up to 95%, which poses no risk to consumers but is deadly for workers who cut and shape these materials. The dust generated during the fabrication process can cause silicosis, a severe lung disease that is destroying the lives of many workers.

The Growing Concern Among Health Professionals

CBS News reports that Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary critical care physician at UCLA Medical Center, encounters patients suffering from silicosis “almost weekly.”

A grayscale chest x-ray image. The lungs exhibit patchy areas of increased opacity, suggesting pulmonary disease

Source: Wikimedia Commons

She recounted a particularly sobering case. “Yesterday, I had a patient, he’d had a cough he didn’t really think anything of. And I basically told him that he was gonna need a lung transplant or he was gonna die in the next couple of years.” 

The Personal Toll of Silicosis

Dennys Williams, a 36-year-old worker from California, underwent a double lung transplant due to silicosis.

A team of medical professionals, dressed in blue surgical gowns, caps, and masks, is focused on performing a surgery in a well-lit operating room. They are gathered around a patient, with hands and surgical instruments working closely together

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the surgery, his life expectancy may only extend to his mid-forties. Williams shared, “You live with the pain. It’s an inexplicable pain. I have pain every day.” 

Disproportionate Impact on Immigrant Workers

The engineered stone industry predominantly employs immigrant Latino workers, who are now facing the brunt of the silicosis epidemic, CBS News reports. This situation not only endangers their health but also imposes a significant emotional and financial burden on their families. 

A close-up of a middle-aged man with a nasal cannula for oxygen therapy. He appears to be in a hospital setting, with a bed and another patient visible in the softly focused background

Source: Getty Images

Dr. Fazio expressed her frustration, stating, “This doesn’t need to be happening. Right? This is a completely preventable disease, and it’s killing people that all they want to do is go to work and provide for their families every day. You have the right to go to work and have your work not kill you.”

Legal Actions Against the Industry

Workers affected by silicosis are beginning to file lawsuits against the manufacturers of engineered stone. 

Several swatches of engineered stone countertop materials are displayed in clear plastic pockets of a binder. The samples showcase a variety of patterns and colors, predominantly in shades of black and gray

Source: Callum Hill/Unsplash

Their attorney, James Nevin, highlighted the gravity of the situation, saying, “Many of these workers are in their twenties, their thirties, their forties, and they will be dead within a year if they don’t get a lung transplant. The manufacturers knew all that. They knew exactly this [was] what was going to happen.”

Industry's Response to the Crisis

CBS News reports that while the manufacturers have not commented on the lawsuits, industry groups like the Silica Safety Coalition and the Engineered Stone Manufacturers’ Association emphasize that silica dust exposure is “preventable” through compliance with existing safety regulations.

A man stands at a podium speaking at a public event focused on "Protecting Workers from Silica Dust," as indicated on the banner behind him featuring the Department of Labor and OSHA logos. To his left, a large poster depicts a construction worker wearing a protective mask and a high-visibility vest, operating machinery

Source: Wikimedia Commons

They argue for the importance of following state and federal OSHA regulations and requirements to protect workers.


Australia's Ban on Engineered Stone

The Guardian reveals that Australia has taken a decisive step by banning engineered stone, citing the industry’s inability to protect workers from silica dust exposure. 

A kitchen interior featuring a large island with a speckled engineered stone countertop. The kitchen has stainless steel appliances, white cabinetry, and a subway tile backsplash

Source: Lotus Design N Print/Unsplash

This move has sparked discussions on the safety practices of fabrication shops in the United States and whether products with lower silica content are sufficiently protective for workers. The Australian government’s action raises important questions about workplace safety and the responsibility of manufacturers.


California's Efforts to Protect Workers

CBS News reports that in response to the silicosis crisis, California has implemented temporary emergency regulations and some manufacturers are now offering products with lower silica content. However, the effectiveness of these measures in preventing silicosis remains uncertain.

A worker in a white shirt and protective apron is operating a large stone cutting machine in an outdoor setting

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Mondragon, a worker in Omaha, Nebraska, stated, “It’s scary just to know that we’re out here making a living and people get sick over some dust that we didn’t really have no knowledge of.”


A Preventable Epidemic

The LA Times reports that in industrial areas like Pacoima, California, workers are exposed to silica dust without adequate protection, leading to a rise in silicosis cases.

A construction worker, viewed from behind, is standing near a concrete structure surrounded by a cloud of dust at a construction site. The worker is wearing a red hard hat

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Community outreach workers like Maria Cabrera are trying to educate workers about the disease and how to protect themselves. 


The Changing Face of Silicosis

Traditionally affecting older individuals after decades of exposure, silicosis is now afflicting younger workers, some in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. 

A patient is lying in a hospital bed, appearing to be in a state of rest or sleep. He is wearing a light blue hospital gown and has an intravenous (IV) line inserted into his arm

Source: Getty Images

Dr. Jane Fazio said, “They’re young guys who essentially have a terminal diagnosis.” 


Outreach and Education Efforts

Organizations like Pacoima Beautiful are conducting outreach to inform workers about silicosis and protective measures, according to The LA Times.

A worker is operating a large drilling rig that is generating a cloud of dust in an outdoor environment

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite these efforts, many workers remain unaware of the risks associated with silica dust. The push for education and safer practices is crucial to prevent further cases of this deadly disease.


The Unseen Cost of Engineered Stone Countertops

Despite engineered stone’s popularity, Dr. Jane Fazio points out a critical awareness gap among consumers regarding its production risks. 

A kitchen counter with a small blue vase holding a bouquet of colorful flowers. The kitchen features contemporary appliances, including a black oven and a stainless steel sink with a silver faucet

Source: Jessica Lewis thepaintedsquare/Pexels

“Engineered stone is everywhere and people have no idea,” she said, highlighting the ethical implications of such purchases. Fazio emphasizes that consumers “have a right to know that the countertop that might be the cheapest one…may really be costing folks’ lives.”