Speaking via a video feed, while connected to an oxygen tank that now aids his breathing around the clock, Leobardo Segura-Meza told the state Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board that several of his co-workers who cut engineered stone were also diagnosed with silicosis, two of whom have died.
“I hope the board takes emergency measures so that other young people like me don’t get sick,” Segura-Meza, a father of three, said in Spanish, as his wife sat next to him. “I’m afraid there aren’t enough lungs for countertop fabrication workers like us to get lung transplants.”
Out of the 77 silicosis cases identified among engineered-stone fabrication workers since 2019, at least 10 people have died, according to the California Department of Public Health.
About 75% of the cases were identified in Los Angeles County, where the majority of countertop fabrication shops are located, and 11% in the Bay Area.
But the health agency noted that with hundreds of such stone cutting shops in the state, those figures are likely an undercount, as additional cases may not be reported or yet diagnosed.
For centuries, silicosis has felled stonecutters, builders, masons, sandblasters and miners. The disease is caused by tiny, crystalline silica particles that lodge in the lungs and produce scarring that eventually prevents the absorption of oxygen.
But the current iteration of the disease increasingly found in workers cutting engineered stone — as opposed to natural stone — is far more lethal and rapidly debilitating, said Eric Berg, Cal/OSHA’s deputy chief of health.
Earlier this year, Australia took steps to become the first in the world to prohibit the use of artificial stone. Responding to a rising rate of silicosis, the Australian government directed its policymaking body to prepare a plan to ban the products, which would go into effect 12 months after a decision is announced.
Segura-Meza, the stonecutter suffering from silicosis, said that during his 10 years on the job, he wore masks he believed reduced the dust he inhaled, but only recently realized they did not provide adequate protection.
When he was first hospitalized in February 2022, doctors initially misdiagnosed him with tuberculosis, before additional testing revealed silicosis. He said he hasn’t been able to make a living since then and has gone on disability.
“I can no longer support my wife and children,” he said.
During Thursday’s board meeting, an attorney with ties to the engineered stone industry questioned the need to urgently implement any new protections for workers and stiffer penalties for employers. He instead advocated for more outreach on best safety practices.
“Industry leaders support being actively involved in driving awareness in an education campaign and enforcement of existing standards, including potentially developing a certification process for fabricators,” said Andrew Young, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP.