The Cal/OSHA Standards Board, overruling its staff recommendation, has approved promulgating a controversial emergency temporary standard. The standard requires the fabricated stone industry to protect employees from silica exposure.
The industry has seen dozens of silica injury cases over the past five years and at least ten deaths. The Western Occupational and Environmental Medical Association (WOEMA) petitioned the Board for an ETS, citing what it terms a crisis in engineered stone.
The Division of Occupational Safety and Health will draft the standard. Deputy Chief for Health Eric Berg tells Cal-OSHA Reporter the Division intends to hold an advisory committee meeting as soon as August. It will draft the Emergency ETS over the next several months. It will be working on a permanent standard, too, Berg says.
DOSH recommended an emergency standard because, it said, it would be “more effective at protecting workers and be easier for employers to implement the current regulation” General Industry Safety Orders §5204. That regulation was effective in 2016, but DOSH says it is insufficient to meet the challenge of engineered stone cut to create countertops. This product is cheaper than alternatives such as granite but contains more than 90% silica, which is released when cutting and grinding occur.
Standards Board staff recommended against the ETS because it believes the problem stems from “noncompliance with the current regulation.” Employers say an even stronger regulation will create more noncompliance among small firms.
Occupational health physicians, including two former Standards Board members, urged the Board to approve the petition. The former board members included Dr. Robert Harrison and Dr. Robert Blink.
“Engineered stone is causing silicosis unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1930s,” Harrison said, noting that there have been 77 confirmed silicosis cases since the problem was identified, with ten fatalities. Even with an ETS, he noted, we’ll still see dozens, if not hundreds, of cases in the coming years.
Blink added, “This current flavor of silicosis is very rapidly aggressive. This is an epidemic. This is a public [health] emergency.” He stated that the Board staff’s analyses were inaccurate and “flat-out wrong.”
A pulmonary physician told the Board, “This is a clear emergency.”
But the most powerful testimony came from a silicosis victim: 27-year-old Leobardo Segura-Meza, who worked in Southern California’s engineered stone industry for several years until he developed fatigue and trouble breathing. In March 2022, he was diagnosed and was forced to quit working and file for disability. Segura-Meza says he developed silicosis despite using a respirator and employing wet methods to cut the stone.
He is now on the waiting list for a lung transplant but knows several other employees who have developed the disease and says one of his fellow workers died while awaiting a transplant.
“I fear there are not enough lungs to be transplanted,” Segura-Meza told the Cal/OSHA community via teleconference.