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California Fast-Tracks Rules to Protect Stonecutters From 'Horrible' Deaths

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A young man with an oxygen tank sits on a chair in an office next to a woman.
Leobardo Segura-Meza, 27, speaks to California workplace regulators via video on July 20, 2023, while his wife Mirian looks on. Segura-Meza, who requires an oxygen tank at all times to breathe, was diagnosed last year with silicosis after working for 10 years cutting engineered stone countertops.  (From Cal/OSHA meeting screenshot )

California workplace regulators have committed to fast-tracking the development of new rules to protect countertop fabrication workers who are inhaling toxic silica dust that doctors say is causing a growing number of young men to irreversibly lose their capacity to breathe.

Dozens of cases of the deadly disease silicosis have been identified in recent years among mostly immigrant workers, some in their 20s, who cut and sand a material known as engineered or artificial stone to make kitchen and bath countertops.

This comes as Cal/OSHA, the state agency charged with protecting workers’ health, declared (PDF) that a state ban on the use of engineered stone products may be warranted in the near future. And last month, Los Angeles County, where most of the sickened stonecutters are, took a first step in considering a county-wide prohibition on the sale, fabrication and installation of silica fabricated stone.

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Engineered stone products have grown in popularity in recent decades because they are easy to clean, resistant to stains and often cheaper than natural stone. But their high silica content, upward of 90%, is linked to a more aggressive form of silicosis striking stonecutters exposed to airborne particles when handling the material.

“I’ve witnessed this disease deteriorate their bodies, turning able-bodied 20- and 30-year-old men into skeletons. I’ve witnessed them waste away and die horrible deaths on life support while waiting for lung transplants,” Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center told the state board tasked with considering workplace safety rules on Thursday.

Fazio said she and her colleagues at the county hospital have diagnosed more than 40 young men with silicosis in the last two years.

“I’m honestly shocked and frustrated that in California and the United States of America we are allowing the completely preventable deaths of young, honest and unassuming working men and fathers in the name of industry,” she added.

Fazio was among a slew of health professionals who urged board members to act swiftly to save workers’ lives. But some of the most arresting testimony came from a soft-spoken 27-year-old man whose survival now depends on receiving a lung transplant.

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.

The standards board ultimately voted 4–0 to grant the petition by a medical association for Cal/OSHA to craft emergency rules covering workplaces that fabricate engineered stone products with high silica content.

The current proposal would prohibit dry-cutting the material and require employers to provide workers with greater protections, such as air-supplied respirators or powered air-purifying respirators. Physicians and other licensed health care professionals would also be required to report moderate to severe cases of silicosis to the state.

Cal/OSHA officials said the new rules would take about four months to prepare before being submitted to the board for approval, as they still require input from the industry and other affected parties. Because the emergency rule would be temporary, lasting only a year, the agency said it would also start working on a permanent regulation.

If inspections find that the new rules, once implemented, are not being followed, the state should start making plans to ban the use of engineered stone products altogether within a year, Cal/OSHA officials said. In a recent evaluation (PDF), the agency expressed doubt that the material could be used safely at all.

After the standards board decision, Segura-Meza told KQED he felt that the vote was a step in the right direction.

“It’s important that people take more precautions. This disease is something very, very difficult,” said Segura-Meza, who recently sued dozens of engineered stone companies, including large manufacturers and distributors, for damages that would cover his injuries and medical expenses. “If I’d known about the dangers, I wouldn’t have done that kind of work.”

His attorney, Raphael Metzger, said large product manufacturers are not providing their customers with vital information to protect workers’ health, such as the need for air-supplied respirators.

“What’s happening to these workers is nothing short of tragic,” said Metzger, who represents 19 other workers with silicosis in separate lawsuits. “No one should have to go to work and be at risk of death in your 20s. That just shouldn’t be.”

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