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Forming a countertop and a way to protect the workers who make them go hand-in-hand.
Breathing in airborne crystalline silica has not only been asso- ciated with silicosis (inflammation and scarring of lungs that per- manently reduces ability to take in oxygen) but also lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), decreased im- mune system and kidney disease.
Also, there are countertop production facilities throughout the United States that include every type of facility from small shops to large manufacturing plants. Employers should take steps to protect their workers from silica exposure. No matter what the size of the facility, workers should carefully review the following recommen- dations and implement the OSHA silica standard requirements to help protect their workers.
OSHA Silica Standards
In 2016, OSHA published standards for occupational exposure to silica in both construction (29 CFR 1926.1153) and general indus- try (29 CFR 1910.1053). These standards, along with frequently asked questions, small business compliance guides, and training materials may be found at
Highlights of these standards include:
1. Lower exposure limit of 0.05 mg/m3 for respirable crystal- line silica.
2. Exposure monitoring.
3. Engineering controls such as wet suppression, dust collec- tion, and ventilation.
4. Housekeeping to keep dust levels down.
5. Limiting access to, or duration in, hazardous area.
6. Respiratory protection.
7. Written exposure control plan (WECP).
8. Designated competent person (construction only).
9. Medical surveillance to identify silicosis in exposed workers. 10. Training including hazards of respirable silica and ensure
workers can demonstrate their knowledge. 11. Record keeping.
Reducing Exposure:
Engineering Controls and Respiratory PPE
If countertop-making businesses don’t follow applicable worker protection regulations, cutting these slabs to fit customers’ kitchens and other uses can release lung-damaging silica that can severely injure workers as well as open these fabrication companies up to violations, fines and other problems. Remember, silicosis is pre- ventable, but not curable.
So, what should safety managers and owners of these compa- nies do to protect their workforce?
First, assess if employee exposures to respirable crystalline silica are at or above the levels prescribed by OSHA by conducting air monitoring and exposure assessments. Next, establish and imple- ment a written exposure control plan (WECP) that identifies tasks that involve exposure, and methods used to protect workers in ac- cordance with the U.S. OSHA silica standards.
Engineering controls such as using tools that include water feeds and high-efficiency particulate air vacuums (HEPA) can help to reduce dust. Other engineering controls may include:
■ Isolating high dust activities such as angle grinding or cutting
■ Installing local exhaust ventilation systems next to the dust generation point
■ Utilizing wet sweeping or HEPA vacuums to clean up in- stead of dry sweeping or compressed air
If these methods are not adequate or while they are being imple- mented, respirators may help further reduce exposure to and inha- lation of silica dust. Depending on airborne respirable silica levels, respirator options range from disposable or reusable half facepiece particulate respirators to powered or supplied air respirators.
When respirators are used, OSHA requires a written respiratory protection program that includes, but is not limited to, proper expo- sure assessment, proper respirator selection, requirements for respi- rator maintenance use and care, along with fit testing, training and a medical evaluation to ensure that the worker can safely wear the assigned respirator. This respirator protection program must have an administrator and be evaluated to ensure effectiveness. Employ- ers and employees may also want to consider eye protection, gloves and protective coveralls depending on the level of exposure.
Employers must also train workers on the hazards of silica, ways to limit exposure and the WECP. Workers should be able to demonstrate that they are aware of these risks and precautionary steps they should be taking to help protect themselves. You should keep records of all this, including completed trainings, each loca- tion’s WECP, exposure measurements, objective data, respiratory program forms and medical exams.
Forming a countertop and a way to protect the workers who make them go hand-in-hand. Silica exposure is preventable when employers take the right steps to conform to regulatory standards. Consult with a reputable PPE provider or manufacturer for help selecting the right respiratory protection for your workers.
Erik Johnson, CIH, CSP, is an Application Engineer/Tech Service Specialist at 3M Personal Safety Division.
Carly Engels Johnston is a Senior Web Journalist/Global Writer-in- Residence at 3M Personal Safety Division.
1. Greenfieldboyce, N. There’s No Good Dust’: What Happens After Quartz Countertops Leave The Factory. NPR. December 2, 2019: s-no-good-dust-what-happens-after-quartz-countertops-leave-the-factory
3. Rose C, Heinzerling A, Patel K, et al. Severe Silicosis in Engineered Stone Fabrication Workers — California, Colorado, Texas, and Washington, 2017–2019. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2019;68: 813–818. DOI:
4. Greenfieldboyce, N. A New Safety Programs Takes on Silica Dust Amid a Possible Crisis. NPR. December 21, 2019: new-safety-program-takes-on-silica-dust-amid-a-possible-crisis
5. Hazard Alert: Worker Exposure to Silica during Countertop Manufacturing, Finishing and Installation. DHHS (NIOSH) Publication Number 2015-106. OSHA–HA-3668-2015.
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