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House Education and Labor Committee chairs urge OSHA action on silica exposure from engineered stone

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

A new CDC report documents 18 cases of silicosis, including two fatalities.

On October 7, in the aftermath of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report on silicosis, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Subcommittee on Workforce Protections Chair Alma Adams (D-N.C.) have sent a letter to new Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia urging that OSHA should strengthen monitoring and protections for engineered stone fabrication workers at high risk of silicosis and other silica-related diseases.

Silicosis report. The report, “Severe Silicosis in Engineered Stone Fabrication Workers—California, Colorado, Texas, and Washington, 2017–2019,” describes 18 cases of silicosis—including two fatalities—across four states in workers who manufacture engineered stone countertops, which can contain more than 90 percent crystalline silica. Several patients also had autoimmune disease and latent tuberculosis infection.

Silicosis is a deadly, irreversible lung disease that results from overexposure to silica dust. Silica exposure is also associated with increased risk for lung infection—notably, tuberculosis—lung cancer, emphysema, autoimmune diseases, and kidney disease, the report noted.

The implications of the report are that stone fabrication workers, especially those working with engineered stone, are at risk for silicosis. Additional efforts are necessary to reduce exposure and improve disease surveillance, given the serious health hazard and significant number of workers at risk, according to the report.

Tip of the iceberg. “Studies from other countries show a larger percentage of stone fabrication workers are contracting silicosis, which suggests that the cases reported by CDC may just be the tip of the iceberg among the 8,694 establishments and 96,366 employees in the stone fabrication industry in the United States,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote. “It is OSHA’s responsibility to assure the safety and health of American workers.”

A step backwards. The lawmakers also noted that despite OSHA issuing a new silica standard in 2016, the Trump administration’s repeal of the National Emphasis Program (NEP) on silica in 2017 is making it more difficult for OSHA to conduct workplace inspections without a worker complaint, injury, or referral.

New focus required. “We are calling on OSHA to issue, without delay, a new NEP that focuses on engineered stone fabrication establishments. We also call upon OSHA to work with the CDC and state health departments to standardize and improve public health surveillance for silicosis and other silica-related disease,” the Chairs wrote. “Absent timely action, OSHA will be failing these stone finishing workers and failing in its mission.”