“I Fear There Are Not Enough Lungs”: the CA Emergency Silicosis Standard
AnaStacia Nicol Wright and Rachel van Geenhoven
July 20, 2023, The California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board Meeting. A young man named Leobardo Segura-Meza speaks of coming to this country from Mexico at the age of sixteen to find a job and start a family. “I apologize if it is very difficult for you to hear me because of the noise,” his interpreter translates, “due to my oxygen tank.”
At only twenty-seven years old, Leobardo requires this tank to breathe. He is on the waitlist for a lung transplant, and has watched coworkers die awaiting their own lung transplants. His wife Miriam sits beside him. They have two children together, and she has another child from a previous marriage. After working in countertop fabrication for eleven years, he is no longer healthy enough to support the five of them.
The disease which ended his coworkers’ lives and now threatens Leobardo’s is a severe lung disease called silicosis, caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, a common mineral found in many types of rock and soil. Inhaling silica particles over time causes permanent lung scarring known as pulmonary fibrosis.
Quartz countertops were popularized by home style gurus such as Martha Stewart. What makes quartz alluring is that it doesn’t require polishing or sealing like other popular stones such as granite. This cuts down on the cost for consumers–but the price paid by the (primarily young, Spanish-speaking Latino) men who fabricate them is unconscionably high.
In California, at least ten workers have already died from this disease after working in shops that make kitchen and bathroom countertops. A University of California at San Francisco pulmonologist recently coauthored a report describing over 50 countertop workers in California with silicosis.WOEMA, an association of physicians and OCC health experts, petitioned for an emergency standard after seeing the growing impact on patients.
It’s typical for bad silicosis cases to require a double lung transplant. A progressive, debilitating, and sometimes fatal disease, chronic silicosis typically occurs after 10 or more years of exposure to respirable crystalline silica. However, the disease can occur much more quickly after heavy exposures.
“I fear there are not enough lungs to be transplanted for the men working in countertop fabrication,” Leobardo stated.
The Board had a memo and proposed decision from its own staff that recommended denying the petition for an emergency standard. Many public comments raised direct concerns about the content and analysis of those materials. It seems that support for doing nothing came from a single attorney with Seyfarth Shaw representing stone manufacturers.
Worksafe organized a joint letter with more than 10 community organizations, unions and advocates, urging the Standards Board to accept the Petition for an emergency ETS to address the new silica crisis.
The Petition aimed to simplify rules for small operators and inspectors in a way that the existing regulation doesn’t by, prohibiting dry fabrication without the used to water to suppress dust, requiring airline respirators or power air purifying respirators to be used in fabrication facilities and increase reporting obligations when silica products are being used.
After hearing Leobardo’s powerful story, alongside the stories and recommendations of physicians and experts, Board Chair Dave Thomas told Leobardo “I hope you’re able to get your transplant soon.”
Because of Leobardo’s courageous testimony and WOEMA action, the Board members followed Cal/OSHA’s strong recommendation and voted 4–0 to approve Cal/OSHA to quickly prepare an ETS for approval. The first Advisory Committee meeting to advance the standard was held last Wednesday, just a few weeks after the vote.