Cutting stone kitchen work surfaces. Photo: Bill Oxford
New kitchen fashion is killing hundreds
“Stone” worktops in kitchens are becoming very fashionable in Britain, yet how many people know that they are killing the workers who make or install them?
I only found out it because I ordered a new kitchen last month and it included a stone worktop. A week or so later, I was at a meeting and a lung consultant mentioned that half of all lung transplants in Israel are due to work with engineered stone. I had never even heard of engineered stone, but it seems that almost all of the “stone “quartz” or “marble” kitchen worktops and tiles that are becoming popular are in fact engineered, which means they are made from pieces of ground stone and resin.
When it is being made and worked on, engineered stone produces a lot of very small silica particles. Workers who inhale these are at risk of silicosis which is an incurable, progressively disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease. They can also get lung cancer.
In the UK thousands of kitchen installers saw, drill or grind slabs of this engineered stone as part of finishing, and installing worktops. The biggest exposure of course is in the manufacture of the slabs where workers are using bags of dust that can contain over 90% silica.
In Israel, where many of the worktops are made, about 300 workers have been found to have silicosis, including 22 patients who have undergone lung transplants. This means that people working with engineered stone make up over a half of all the lung transplants referrals in Israel.
In 2013 a similar outbreak was found in Spain, which, is another big producer of these worktops. Cases are also being reported amongst kitchen fitters in Australia.
The biggest producers however are China and India where figures on the number who are being slowly killed by these new fashion statements are just not available. Nor do we know the number of people being exposed in the UK, however a large number are self-employed and so not covered by the health and safety at work act as they are exposing themselves, not others.
In the USA, a 2013 study showed that every person working in four kitchen shops using engineered stone were exposed to levels of silica well above the (then) legal maximum. Since then the legal level of exposure to silica in the US has been reduced and, earlier this year, the regulator issued a warning on the issue.
Here in the UK the legal maximum exposure limit remains twice that in the US, despite union attempts to get it reduced (see Hazards magazine). The HSE does have some advice on engineered stone on their website, but we need more than just a mention in a much longer leaflet which most kitchen installers are never likely to see. There is a case for an industry wide warning, as in the US, followed by an awareness campaign and inspection activity.
Deaths from silicosis have been falling over past decades as campaigns in the construction industry started to have an effect. However, given the rising popularity of this material, we face a new wave of workers lungs being destroyed by silica unless action is taken now to ensure that workers are made aware of the risks and proper precautions taken.
As for me, I phoned the kitchen company, who confirmed that they use “engineered stone”. I changed the order immediately.