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Silicosis is a form of occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust. It is marked by inflammation and scarring in the form of nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs. It is a type of pneumoconiosis. Silicosis, particularly the acute form, is characterized by shortness of breath, cough, fever, and cyanosis (bluish skin). It may often be misdiagnosed as pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), pneumonia, or tuberculosis.

Silicosis resulted in at least 43,000 deaths globally in 2013, down from at least 50,000 deaths in 1990. Since 2019, over 100 workers in California have developed the deadly disease silicosis from cutting artificial, man-made stone. Artificial stone is commonly used for countertops in new construction projects.

Early recognition of the potential for industrially related came from the granite cutters of Vermont in the early 1900s. Dr. Alice Hamilton, a pioneer in occupational medicine, documented their plight, and by the 1930s, granite workers had secured safety measures like ventilation. However, this progress wasn’t universal.

The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster near Gauley Bridge West Virginia, also in the 1930s, stands as a grim reminder. Workers, primarily immigrants, drilled through a mountain rich in silica with minimal protection. The horrific outcome: over 700 deaths from silicosis.

Following such tragedies, regulations emerged. However, enforcement remained lax, and silicosis re-emerged in the 1970s among sandblasters and oil field workers. More recently, engineered stone countertops have become a new source of concern. Workers fabricating these materials develop silicosis at alarming rates, often young and unaware of the risks.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) is increasing awareness of the dangers of being exposed to silica dust while working with man-made and natural stone.

Sacramento California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) is increasing efforts to address the growing number of silicosis cases among stone workers in California. Man-made stone that is frequently used contains higher concentrations of crystalline silica that can severely scar lung tissue when inhaled.

With cases of silicosis increasing in California, Cal/OSHA has further intensified its enforcement and education efforts. On December 14, 2023, an emergency temporary standard was adopted to enhance existing guidelines for respirable crystalline silica hazards. Since then, Cal/OSHA has closed several stone cutting shops in the state that were not providing proper safety protections for their employees. A public meeting is scheduled on May 16 to consider a revised proposal for readoption of the emergency temporary standard for an additional 90 days in to protect workers from the hazards of silica dust.

DIR and Cal/OSHA recently launched a bilingual public awareness and education campaign that offers employers and workers resources and information about the proper use of safety equipment and safe worksite practices. The campaign website, also provides vital information for workers on workplace safety rights and how to report safety violations.

Cal/OSHA’s workplace safety laws and emergency temporary standard are key components to ensure that workers are safe. Increasing awareness to employers and employees of the dangerous effects of inhaling respirable crystalline silica dust from tasks like grinding, drilling and cutting, can help save lives and avoid incurable health conditions like silicosis, lung cancer and kidney diseases.

According to DIR Director Katie Hagen “the startling uptick in deadly silicosis cases in our state underscores the necessity to protect workers from this fatal disease. Man-made stone products with high silica content, like countertops, can only be fabricated safely with proper safety equipment and practices, such as water systems, safe cleaning of dust and debris and the use of the best respiratory protection available. Failure to follow these life-saving practices can have grave consequences for some of California’s most vulnerable workers. Our department, through Cal/OSHA, is proactively working to educate employers on safe worksite practices, enforcing regulatory standards, and warning workers of its hazards.”