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A New Safety Program Takes On Silica Dust Amid A Possible Crisis

Water applied to cutting equipment, like this computer-operated saw, is one method to control silica dust exposure when cutting quartz slabs.
Michael Conroy
Water applied to cutting equipment, like this computer-operated saw, is one method to control silica dust exposure when cutting quartz slabs.

The Department of Labor's workplace safety agency is getting ready to take new action to reduce workers' exposure to dangerous silica dust that can irreparably damage the lungs.

But the agency's new program doesn't give special attention to the kitchen and bathroom countertop industry, which has recently seen cases of severe lung damage that have alarmed public health officials.

Physicians have found aggressive forms of the disease silicosis in young, previously healthy workers who cut and polished countertops made out of natural stone and engineered quartz, a composite material that typically has a silica content of more than 90%. Some workers have died, and others will need lung transplants.

Finding silicosis in the countertop industry was something new for the United States, where over 2 million American workers are exposed to silica dust in other jobs like construction, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The silica dust comes from cutting, grinding, mixing or demolishing materials like stone, concrete and brick.

In Australia, studies of countertop workers have found that more than 10% have silicosis. It's unknown how many of the estimated 100,000 countertop workers in the U. S. are affected.

Lawmakers wrote to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in October, calling for the agency to issue a new National Emphasis Program to focus agency resources on the engineered stone countertop fabrication industry and make it easier for inspectors to target those workplaces.

The American Public Health Association also wrote to OSHA in October, saying "there is an urgent need for OSHA enforcement and outreach on respirable silica in this industry. ... Targeted inspections in the industry will help determine the magnitude of the problem." As of Dec. 20, OSHA had not responded to the association.

On Dec. 19, however, the Department of Labor did inform lawmakersthat it intends to implement a new National Emphasis Program for silica, which will replace a similar program that was canceled in October of 2017.

A required 10-day notice was given to House and Senate appropriations committees on Dec. 17, which means the program could go into effect very soon. It will require that 2% of all OSHA inspections every year occur in workplaces at elevated risk of silica exposures.

But countertop fabricators are just one targeted industry in a long list that includes everything from iron foundries to concrete pipe manufacturing to machine shops.

"OSHA anticipates that the majority of the inspections will occur in construction," according to a description of the program provided to lawmakers, because most exposures to silica dust occur on construction sites.

One congressional aide said it wasn't clear how many additional inspections would actually occur at countertop fabrication shops, and called this a woefully inadequate response to what some public health experts fear is a potential crisis.

The spending bill that passed this past week did provide OSHA with an increase of $24 million above its 2019 enacted funding level, however, which means more money will be available for inspections and enforcement.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.