Since the early 2000s, the stone fabrication industry has enjoyed a remarkable ascent. However, recent revelations about the correlation between severe silicosis and lax stone fabrication workplace protections have resulted in the emergence of many personal injury lawsuits against engineered stone manufacturers and stone fabrication employers.
In spite of recent federal, state, and industry efforts to impose and enforce more rigid silica regulations, the damage has already been done – in some cases, permanently. Nevertheless, silicosis lawsuits for injured stone fabrication workers remain open, even if medicine lacks a cure for some respirable crystalline silica (RCS)-related illnesses.
Table of contents
- What is Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS)?
- Depression-Era Issues With Silicosis
- The Growth of Gulf Oil, Sandblasting, and Silicosis
- Countertop Stone Fabrication Industry Newest Occupation Connected to Fatal Silica Exposure
- Additional RCS Reports and Regulations
- Common Injuries in Engineered Stone Worker Litigation
- Contact An Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer Near You
What is Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS)?
Silica is a ubiquitous and naturally occurring mineral in a variety of stone types. Harmless in and of itself, when ground and pulverized, it can transform into the microscopic respirable crystalline silica (RCS), a dust whose particulates are 100 times smaller than a grain of sand.
RCS overexposure has a long history not only in the United States of America but around the world. Recorded in European accounts from the 18th century, silica inhalation is, perhaps rightly, characterized as one of the oldest recognized occupational injuries.
Many industries that involve the cutting, grinding, polishing, and buffering of stone products often encounter the possibility of worker exposure to dangerous RCS particulates. In the absence of personal protective equipment (PPE) and preventative on-site techniques, like wet-cutting, workers run considerable risks to their lives and livelihoods.
Depression-Era Issues With Silicosis
Although the newest spate of silicosis lawsuits from stone fabrication workers are unique claims in their own right, they echo previous silicosis lawsuits in other industries. As early as the 1920s, the American government was well aware of the risks associated with overexposure to RCS but failed to enact necessary regulations or punishments for the endangerment of workers in industries with high RCS exposure risk.
The most prominent RCS incident in the United States occurred in 1930, when Union Carbide Corporation decided to drill a three-mile-wide tunnel through Gauley Mountain in West Virginia. The ostensible objective of the project was to divert the neighboring New River to a power plant located alongside Gauley Bridge.
However, as the costs associated with the project grew, so, too, did the financial anxieties of the mine operators and management. Seeking to exploit the unusually high levels of silica in Gauley Mountain for the provision of raw materials for ferrosilicon production, the corporation set about expanding the diameter of the tunnel for further extraction.
Hawk’s Nest Silica Disaster in West Virginia
5,000 workers participated in the Hawk’s Nest project, over half of whom, at some point during the course of the dig, toiled underground. A 1936 congressional subcommittee later revealed that, unless inspectors were on-site, the employer abjured basic safety protocol and exploited the arduous Depression-era conditions to prevent employee unrest by threatening termination.
Without respirators and safe working conditions, 764 Union Carbide Corporation employees died of acute silicosis and 1,500 more contracted the illness. Those who succumbed to fatal illnesses on-site were often buried unceremoniously on the roadside.
Alongside lawsuits from the family members of the decedents, 46 states imposed new guidelines and regulations by 1937 in response to the tragedy, intending to address silica exposure and guarantee workers’ compensation for silicosis diagnoses. Nevertheless, the patchwork statutory landscape remains, even today, primarily industry-specific, and the silica dust cloud continues to float from sector to sector.
The Growth of Gulf Oil, Sandblasting, and Silicosis
From the 1970s to the early 2000s, the American oil industry enjoyed a tremendous uptick in the Gulf region, encompassing Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. As laborers in Gulf states transitioned to oil rigs, refineries, and shipyards, they assumed positions as sandblasters.
Removing paint from hulls and polishing stone edifices, sandblasting workers were singularly at risk for inhaling respirable crystalline silica and developing pulmonary fibrosis, silicosis, and other lung diseases. Given the progressive nature of silicosis and the fact that it can manifest anywhere from months to decades after sustained overexposure, it was not evident until the new millennium that sandblasters could develop potentially fatal conditions on account of their occupation.
When deaths from severe cases of silicosis grew in the 1990s and research conducted by physicians established a causal link between sandblasting and silicosis, workers began to file silicosis lawsuits against their employers. However, a serious incident of fraudulence in the early 2000s presented a serious threat to the advancement of regulations and legal accountability regarding RCS safety and silicosis risk.
Mississippi Silicosis Fraud Jeopardizes Legal and Regulatory Terrain of Silica Exposure
In 2002, roughly 10,000 workers filed official complaints in the Mississippi court system against their employers, impugning their conduct and holding them liable for silicosis diagnoses in workers. The year before, the number of similar claims was barely one hundred.
Instantaneously, insurance carriers suspended coverage for silicosis in policy renewals and, in the final quarter of 2003, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation granted a transfer order consolidating the outstanding claims in the U.S. District Court for the District of Corpus Christi. The presiding judge, Janis Graham Jack, conducted a scrupulous investigation and concluded, by 2005, that thousands of claims had been entirely fabricated or, as she alleges in her opinion, “were essentially manufactured on an assembly line”.
Although many of the discredited cases were remanded to state courts for further proceedings, the scandal resulted in a deleterious setback for the cause of workers’ rights in a relatively unregulated RCS environment.
Countertop Stone Fabrication Industry Newest Occupation Connected to Fatal Silica Exposure
The latest and, hopefully, the last set of RCS overexposure lawsuits is connected to the seemingly innocuous industry of stone fabrication, which encapsulates, amongst other things, countertop production. In 2019, NPR ran a story detailing the unfortunate experience of Ublester Rodriguez, a Mexican-American migrant who transitioned from dishwashing at a Chinese restaurant to laboring at a workshop that specialized in countertop production, in 2000.
Rodriguez developed a debilitating case of silicosis and, eventually, filed suit against his employer, Consentino. The Spanish company was one of the first to capitalize on the engineered stone market in the States, relying on a composite blend of quartz and resin to produce stone slabs for fabrication. The engineered stone slabs have a substantially higher level of silica than other, natural stone types, and those who regularly cut and grind them incur a correspondingly higher risk of RCS overexposure and consequent silicosis.
Additional RCS Reports and Regulations
At the time NPR published the story, only 18 silicosis diagnoses were definitively connected to the countertop production industry, which boasts over 100,000 employees in the United States alone. However, recent silicosis reporting from Yahoo! News details the alarming prevalence of silicosis amongst Hispanic migrant workers in California, a hotspot in the engineered stone industry.
In response to reports from Australia, Israel, and Japan, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued new regulations for RCS exposure in the workplace, and a subsidiary agency of the U.S. Department of Labor imposed new standards for the mining industry.
Although the recent federal interest in devising new guidelines for respirable crystalline silica overexposure across various stone fabrication and construction industries is promising, the failure to do so earlier has left, potentially, tens of thousands of workers permanently injured – and litigious.
Common Injuries in Engineered Stone Worker Litigation
Fabricated stone workers are now filing suit against prominent employers and seeking compensation for severe injuries like silicosis associated with RCS overexposure. The litany of medical conditions causally linked to the inhalation of silica include:
- Chronic silicosis
- Accelerated silicosis
- Acute silicosis
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Lung Cancer
- Kidney Cancer
Damages Associated With Silicosis and Other Silica Dust Caused Injuries
If you or someone you know has developed any of the injuries associated with RCS overexposure, you may be eligible to seek compensation for:
- Past, present, and future medical expenses
- Lost income and wages
- Emotional distress
- Decreased quality of life
With the assistance of a qualified silicosis lawyer, you can determine the strength and eligibility of your case and calculate the precise compensation to which you may be entitled. Given the severity of the illnesses caused by sustained RCS overexposure, the legal aid of a personal injury attorney can overwhelmingly relieve you of the burden of seeking compensation from a recalcitrant company and grant you the time you need to recover.
Contact An Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer Near You
Lawsuit Legal News believes that the failure of stone fabrication businesses to take appropriate steps to minimize RCS overexposure in their workplaces endangered the lives of countless employees. For instance, a study conducted by Dr. Kenneth Rosenman concludes that roughly 4 - 8% of silicosis cases may result in death.
Although it may be too late to reverse corporate negligence and, in lieu of an available cure, impossible to eradicate silicosis, you may still have the opportunity to reclaim foregone financial aid as mounting medical expenses and appointments slowly replace your weekly paycheck and workday schedule.
Our qualified personal injury lawyers offer free consultations to prospective clients and work on a contingency-fee-basis, which means you don’t pay unless we deliver. Every state has statutes of limitation that establish a legal deadline after which your claim is no longer eligible in a court of law. The sooner you speak with counsel, the more time you’ll have to safeguard your health as we protect your rights.