The Hidden Toll of Design: Engineered Stone Countertops Are Killing Latino Workers

Engineered Stone BELatina
Photo Credit environmentalsafetyupdate.com

The next time you’re in the market for a fresh, new countertop, you’ll want to take a minute to think about how that countertop was made — because chances are that it would take a permanent toll on a Latino worker’s health. A new report published this week by the CDC covered the incidence of silicosis, an occupational lung disease, among people who work with engineered stone countertops — specifically, people who cut the silica-rich stone. Almost every single patient included in the report was Latino, two of whom have died.

While both granite and marble countertops contain natural amounts of silica, engineered stone countertops — a surface we refer to as quartz — contain particularly high levels of it, a mineral which gets loosened from the countertop material during the cutting process. The silica gets torn into dust by the blade and subsequently gets inhaled by the countertop cutters. Once inhaled, it inflicts irreversible damage to the lungs. This debilitating condition, a disease called silicosis, can lead to death. 

Manufactured Stone Lung Ailment BELatina
Photo Credit: Doctors are concerned the dry-cutting of stone is leading to a lung disease crisis. (ABC News)

“If you go to the bathroom, it’s dust. When we go to take lunch, on the tables, it’s dust. Your nose, your ears, your hair, all your body, your clothes — everything. When you walk out of the shop, you can see your steps on the floor, because of the dust,” described Jose Martinez to NPR in a piece published earlier this week. Martinez is in his 30s and has been diagnosed with silicosis. He fears for his family’s future and his life, as he is already suffering from pain, headaches, and shortness of breath that result from the silica’s damage to his lung tissue. His only chance at a “cure” is to receive a lung transplant.

While the prevalence of silicosis among Latinx workers is heartbreaking, it probably isn’t much of a surprise in the context of occupational hazards that marginalized employees face in their work. A recent report put together by researchers at the University of Southern California determined that Latinx immigrants and black American men faced the greatest risk of sustaining injuries at work. It’s unclear under exactly what conditions Martinez works, but the CDC report suggested that Latinx immigrants are particularly at risk for silicosis because they are unable or unwilling to raise their concerns if their employers do not implement safe workplace conditions; they may also decline to seek medical attention because they cannot afford to take time off work or pay for medical care.

One thing you can do as a consumer to ensure that you aren’t inadvertently designing your kitchen or bathroom at the expense of another person’s health is to understand that any stone countertop can be made safely and responsibly when employers invest in safe workplace conditions. To find reputable, responsible manufacturers, one industry veteran told NPR that consumers should choose countertops made by vendors who are accredited by the Natural Stone Institute, as it makes it more likely that they are adhering to voluntary safety practices. And if you happen to have access to the cutting floor itself, check to see if there’s dust on the premises; a safe workplace should be dust-free.