Silica is an abundant mineral found in materials including sand, stone, and concrete. While serving as a principal component of glass, cement, and ceramics, silica also presents an increasingly pertinent issue for those with interests in toxic torts, as well as businesses involved in the manufacturing or distribution of silica products: occupational exposure to airborne silica, a leading cause of silicosis and lung cancer.
Silicosis is a severe, incurable lung disease that is often fatal. Upon inhalation of fine particles created through workers’ manipulation of the material, small amounts of silica become trapped in the lungs, causing the scarring of lung tissue. Resulting effects are severe, often requiring lifelong care and a possible lung transplant.
Cases commonly appear among those working in construction or mining, and symptoms can present after only a few years of occupational exposure. More often than not, workers use little to no protective equipment, leaving them vulnerable to inhalation of the harmful substance. With the number of silicosis cases on the rise, the issue has been denoted an “emerging epidemic” constituting a “public health problem of great urgency.”1
California has recently seen a large cluster of occupational-related silicosis cases, with its Department of Public Health identifying at least sixty-nine confirmed cases since 2019. And the primary victim? Fabricators and installers of artificial-stone countertops.
Artificial-stone countertops have become increasingly popular due to their affordability and versatility. They also contain roughly ninety percent silica. While cutting or grinding the artificial-stone slabs into shape, workers are frequently exposed to clouds of airborne silica dust. Affected California workers are predominantly Latino men under fifty years old who work in kitchen showrooms, home-improvement stores, and for manufacturing companies.
It was not difficult to establish the link between silicosis and the fabrication of artificial-stone countertops. Over thirty cases of silicosis among fabricators in Southern California alone were diagnosed at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, with more cases being reported each month. Given the countertop fabrication industry’s prevalence in California, an industry that employs about nine thousand workers statewide, such cases may only represent the tip of the iceberg.2
The Western Occupational and Environmental Medical Association (WOEMA) has recently petitioned California’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, arguing for stricter emergency silica standards including but not limited to:
- a prohibition on the dry-cutting of artificial stone;
- stronger respiratory protection requirements for silica workers;
- requiring employers to prepare a plan to control silica exposure;
- increased penalties for workplace violations; and
- reporting requirements for healthcare professionals working on severe cases.3
Although Cal/OSHA has been working with the California Department of Public Health to develop a “possible emergency regulation to prevent silicosis,” no specific details have yet emerged.4 Nonetheless, as of early May 2023, Cal/OSHA and the California Department of Public Health have contacted over eight hundred employers likely to have employees that have been exposed to silica dust, seeking to convey a simple message: “comply with our regulations, seek free assistance from our Consultation Services, or possibly face a Cal/OSHA Enforcement inspection.”5
The recent wave of occupational related silicosis cases has led dozens of lawsuits to be filed on behalf of sick silica workers and survivors of those that have passed. Most of these lawsuits have been filed by well-known toxic tort Plaintiffs’ attorney, Raphael Metzger of Metzger Law Group. He was at the forefront of filing the first diacetyl lawsuits in California, representing workers at various food flavoring facilities who suffered from a rare respiratory disease, bronchiolitis obliterans. With at least 20 silicosis lawsuits filed so far, Mr. Metzger is in the process of organizing these lawsuits into a single coordinated action where all such lawsuits will ultimately reside.
Manufacturers and other businesses involved in the chain of distribution of artificial-stone countertops or silica-related products must be aware of the ongoing silicosis epidemic and subsequent lawsuits currently in progress. Such lawsuits have the potential to achieve “nuclear verdicts,” especially in cases where economic damages including medical expenses are expected to be over seven figures.
1. Jim Morris & Kim Krisberg, “California Regulators Drafting Emergency Rule to Combat Deadly Lung Disease,” Pub. Health Watch (May 10, 2023), https://publichealthwatch.org/2023/05/10/california-regulators-drafting-emergency-rule-to-combat-deadly-lung-disease/
2. Kristen Cummings, Robert Harrison & Amy Heinzerling, “California Artificial Stone and Silicosis Project,” Ca. Lab Lab (2023), https://calaborlab.ucsf.edu/california-artificial-stone-and-silicosis-project
3. Petition 597 from R. Terrazas, WOEMA President, WOEMA, to Dave Thompson and Board Members of the Cal/OSHA Standards Board (Feb. 15, 2023), https://www.dir.ca.gov/oshsb/documents/petition-597.pdf.
4. Morris & Krisberg, supra note 1.
5. Id.; see 8 CCR § 5204; § 1532.3.