Silicosis rates on the rise in US

Silicosis rates on the rise in US

The rising rates of silicosis in Australia have been well documented in the media recently, and now awareness of the disease is spreading, with American workers taking to the press to highlight the dangers of dust diseases in the engineered stone industry.

In Los Angeles, men in their thirties are being diagnosed with silicosis, mainly from being exposed in the engineered stone benchtop industry, which is hugely popular. 

At least 30 men in the countertop fabrication industry in the Los Angeles area have been diagnosed with an accelerated form of silicosis since January 2016. All of the men are young Latinos. 

The point that many of the men make when talking about their condition is, firstly, that it is not new, and secondly that it is eminently preventable. There are reports of silicosis in quarry workers in ancient Greece, and rates increased in line with the industry growth of mining and sandblasting in the US in the 20th century. 

“They can maybe not even have symptoms initially,” said Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary physician at Olive View respiratory clinic, which is funded by LA County. “Then it’s this sort of slow, progressive, dry cough and maybe just an inability to, you know, run and play with your kids.” The patient’spatient’s lung capacity and respiratory health continue to decline, eventually requiring oxygen. 

The significant problem is that the disease, while well understood and prevalent throughout history, continues to reemerge. Israel, Spain and Australia have all seen an increase in silicosis in line with the increasing popularity of artificial stone benchtops. 

While LA County and its health departments have implemented a “special emphasis” program designed to limit exposure in workplaces, which uncovered exposure levels at sites above the appropriate standards, however, the program was suspended in early 2020 when the focus of the local area health department turned to the pandemic. 

The problem is almost certainly nationwide in the US, which saw legislation implemented by the OSHA in 2016, and again in 2020 to tighten exposure standards. However, researchers estimate that in terms of stone cutting, 96,366 fabrication workers at 8,694 sites in America were at risk of developing silicosis. The numbers are probably higher. 

Federal and state occupational safety and health is chronically underfunded in the US, with an estimated one safety inspector for every 81,000 workers in the country. 

As federal funding rates struggle, as well as resourcing for inspectors and the court system to prosecute offenders, litigation rates will likely rise. There are already examples of product liability lawsuits against manufacturers and suppliers of engineered stone products. 

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