Saturday, November 30, 2019

What's in Your Kitchen? Workers are Falling Ill, Even Dying, After Making Kitchen Countertops

“…This kind of engineered stone, often marketed as simply ‘quartz,’ is now one of the most popular options for kitchen and bathrooms.
Health concerns emerge:

“The trouble is, workers have gotten sick, and even died, after cutting this engineered stone and breathing in its dangerous dust, public health officials say. Overseas, some are even calling for a ban on selling engineered quartz for countertops… And so far, physicians have identified at least 18 more countertop workers with silicosis in this country. They worry that more cases are out there, and more people are at risk, given that the countertop fabrication industry in the U.S. has around 100,000 workers….
Silestone comes to America:

“Cosentino, headquartered in Spain, started selling engineered quartz in Europe in 1990, under the brand name Silestone. In 1997, the company formed a subsidiary called Cosentino North America, to bring Silestone to a new market…
“Silestone's durability and resistance to stains thrilled kitchen designers. It was featured in Time and Good Housekeeping. The business grew rapidly. As Cosentino executive Brandon Calvo explained in a promotional video, ‘When we were awarded the national account for Home Depot, I don't think we knew what we were in for. I don't think we knew how big it was.’ In 2005, Cosentino ran an advertisement during the Super Bowl, featuring basketball star Dennis Rodman soaking in a bubble bath surrounded by bathroom countertops made of Silestone.

“Cosentino wasn't the only company offering the new miracle countertop. Competitors were selling similar materials under such brand names as Caesarstone, Zodiaq and Cambria. Over time, more and more companies started producing slabs of engineered quartz…

“Thousands of workers… toiled in countertop fabrication shops across the country, cutting that raw material into just the right size to fit in customers' kitchens.
“In addition to importing slabs of Silestone from Spain and selling them to countertop-making shops, Cosentino also operated its own network of shops, which came to be called Stone Systems. With a dozen locations, Stone Systems bills itself as ‘the largest network of commonly owned stone fabrication shops’ in North America.
The dangers of dry cutting:

“During those early days, according to pretrial depositions from Ublester Rodriguez and company executives, cutting was done dry. That means no spray of water on the cutting blades to keep dust from flying into the air. The company later changed this practice. But for years, Rodriguez did a variety of jobs to process the slabs, surrounded by dust from his own cutting and that of his co-workers…
“Dust from cut stone is potentially dangerous if it contains the mineral silica, which can cause a lung disease called silicosis. The lungs become inflamed and develop scars. There's no cure, and the disease is progressive. People with silicosis slowly suffocate.

“That's been known for a long time; silicosis is one of the oldest known occupational hazards. In the 1930s, the Department of Labor even made a workplace safety film called Stop Silicosis, which emphasized that silicosis could be prevented by controlling dust with water sprays and vacuum systems…

“[I]n 2009, a year earlier, the company had tested the workplace air for the first time, according to a document produced by the company during the lawsuit. Those tests revealed silica exposure levels above the legal limit in three of seven workers who wore monitoring devices to assess the air quality around them.
“In addition, ‘results exceeded the 50% advisory action level for three additional measured employees,’ according to the document, which noted that results at or above this level 'indicate the statistical potential for overexposure on other days, and the need for corrective action.’

“In 2011, another round of air tests found basically the same result: three of seven monitored workers above the permissible exposure limit, according to information revealed in the depositions. This was so even though all of the processes, the cutting and grinding, were using water to keep down the dust…
“Travis Dupre, the current vice president of sales for Stone Systems, testified in a deposition that he learned of the dangers of silica through word of mouth in the industry, around late 2003 or early 2004, when the Houston shop had moved to a new facility and instituted wet processes…
“In March 2013, for example, OSHA received a complaint about conditions at Stone Systems of New England, in Rhode Island. The inspector's report noted that wet grinding and cutting techniques were used, but ‘there has been no testing done to validate effectiveness of the wet methods to control the dust.’ […]
“OSHA did that testing, which showed that one worker there was exposed to airborne silica levels approximately 4.6 times the permissible limit. Another worker was exposed to 17.5 times the limit. At that higher level of exposure, the respirator being worn wouldn't offer enough protection, according to OSHA documents describing the violation.
“What's more, not all workers had been properly fit-tested for respirators, and some wearing respirators had facial hair, which interferes with the seal to the face, according to the citation.
“When asked about these OSHA citations in Rhode Island, as well as other OSHA citations from 2011 related to silica exposure in its shops in Minnesota and Colorado, a spokesperson for Cosentino replied that ‘all OSHA citations mentioned in your questions were minor citations and the penalties were significantly reduced. In addition, all of them were fully abated and resolved.’
“In 2014, Rodriguez and his illness came to the attention of occupational health specialists who had been on the lookout for cases in this industry…

“Next to workers finishing countertops with water-fed, hand-held tools, there were dust removal systems — devices that suck dust toward curtains of flowing water. Dupre said they were installed a couple of years ago…Dupre said results like this are the goal of Stone Systems for every location around the country. And that the company complies with OSHA regulations…”

For the complete NPR article by Nell Greenfieldboyce, click here. 

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