Silicosis and Other Illnesses Caused by Silica Dust Exposure

Silicosis and Other Illnesses Caused by Silica Dust Exposure

In recent months, workers in the engineered stone fabrication industry have begun to silicosis lawsuits against prominent employers and manufacturers, alleging negligence in the workplace and a failure to institute preventative measures to mitigate the rate of silica dust overexposure. 

With the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) unveiling new federal guidelines for appropriate silica levels in so-called “dusty jobs” and Yahoo! News and NPR reports detailing the haunting experiences of stone workers battling silicosis, the country seems poised to undertake, at last, a campaign to restrict the presence of toxic byproducts in the workplace. 

Nevertheless, countless workers have been permanently injured and now suffer from debilitating diseases for which there is no cure. If you or someone you know has developed silicosis or another medical condition on account of unmitigated RCS exposure, you may be entitled to compensation through a stone worker silicosis lawsuit. 

Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) Poses a Serious Threat to Workers Health

Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is a byproduct of common industrial processes, including the grinding, cutting, sawing, polishing, and buffering of stone products. It is a microscopic dust whose particulates are one hundred times smaller than a grain of sand and composed of the naturally occurring mineral silica. 

Silica is present in countless stone types, rendering it one of the most abundant geological resources on the planet. Silica levels vary between stone types but are particularly high in engineered stone slabs used for the manufacturing of kitchen and bathroom countertops. 

In the United States, silica overexposure has been the cause of extensive occupational injuries and lawsuits in industries ranging from sandblasting and mining to construction and stone fabrication. Despite silica dust’s known potential to cause serious medical conditions, – some of which are incurable, progressive, and fatal – federal regulations are either preliminary or poorly enforced, and employer disregard for state-level RCS statutes is shockingly flagrant. 

The recent spate of engineered stone worker lawsuits is the latest in a long line of silicosis litigation dating back to the 1930s. From the Hawk’s Nest disaster in Gauley, West Virginia to the silica dust litigation out of Gulf states during the 1970s and 2000s oil boom, RCS has endangered and killed workers, uninterruptedly, for close to a century. 

What Is Silicosis and How Does Respirable Crystalline Silica Cause It?

Silicosis is the most prominent occupational disease associated with overexposure to silica dust. The disease is a progressive lung illness that can manifest mere months to whole decades after sustained exposure to silica particulates. Noted in European accounts dating back to the 17th century, it remains one of the oldest occupational illnesses in the modern era. 

In the absence of sufficient workplace protocol and personal protective equipment (PPE), workers in the engineered stone industry run the risk of inhaling high levels of respirable crystalline silica. The silica dust inflames the sensitive inner lining of the lungs and aggravates pulmonary air sacs (alveoli). 

Sustained overexposure often results in the development of scar tissue and correspondingly decreased oxygen levels in the blood, difficulty breathing, and reduced mobility. Silicosis is, unfortunately, an incurable disease whose conditions only worsen over time and, depending on the severity of the diagnosis, can prove fatal. 

There are three types of silicosis, determined by the length of the exposure period and intensity of the exposure itself: 

Chronic Silicosis (Simple and Complicated)

The least severe variant of silicosis, a chronic diagnosis typically occurs upwards of 10 years after sustained exposure to relatively minimal levels of respirable crystalline silica (RCS). It is typically subdivided into two categories. 

Simple silicosis can be asymptomatic and have little to no impact on normal pulmonary functions. Although the lung damage any form of silicosis can cause is irreversible, only in simple silicosis is the damage comparatively manageable. 

By contrast, complicated silicosis can display similar but less severe symptoms to more advanced permutations of the disease, including difficulty breathing, weight loss, and a progressive cough. 

Accelerated Silicosis

Accelerated silicosis generally occurs around 5 years after sustained overexposure to silica dust in the workplace. Like chronic/complicated silicosis, an accelerated diagnosis has a noticeable impact on normal pulmonary functions. 

Aside from the shorter exposure period, accelerated silicosis is distinguished by a greater degree of lung inflammation and scarring. Pulmonary fibrosis represents one of the most severe side effects of silica dust inhalation in unregulated workplaces, and can even result in the need for a lung transplant. 

Acute Silicosis 

In the engineered stone industry, countertops are often artificial composites of quartz rock, which already boast a high silica content and an adhesive resin. When cut or ground, artificial stone slabs can release large silica dust clouds which, without PPE, ventilators, or wet sprays, workers can easily inhale. 

The most severe form of silicosis can manifest mere months after sustained exposure in such dangerous working conditions. An acute silicosis diagnosis generally addresses:

  • Lung inflammation
  • Pulmonary fluid buildup 
  • Low oxygen levels in the blood
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Worsening cough

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Linked to RCS Overexposure

Extensive damage to the lungs is often incurable and irreversible. When it comes to the constriction of airways and the development of scar tissue from irritants, medical intervention can only mitigate the symptoms and temporarily delay inevitable decline. It is largely because of the permanent damage that RCS overexposure can cause to the lungs that ubiquitous employer and manufacturer failure to diminish the likelihood that workers would suffer from it is so egregious. 

On top of running the risk of developing the life-threatening condition of silicosis, engineered stone workers are also at a heightened risk of developing the progressive disease, COPD. In 2003, the peer-reviewed medical journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine (OEM) published an article establishing a tentative but probable connection between overexposure to RCS and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

The researchers conclude that the primary mechanism behind silica dust exposure and COPD is a set of “pathological changes that may lead to the development” of the disease, whose symptoms include: 

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in chest
  • Mucus overproduction
  • Weight loss
  • Wheezing

Can Silica Dust Exposure Result in Lung Cancer?

In April 2020, the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine released an important study examining the exposure-response relationship between silica dust inhalation and lung cancer. Isolating other complicating participant factors, such as smoking history, the researchers conclude that there is a “robust” causal link connecting “low exposure levels” of RCS in the workplace and lung cancer. 

The study was corroborated in 2022 when the National Cancer Institute published an overview of preexisting research analyzing lung cancer in quarry and granite workers. The NCI states that RCS overexposure was “associated with elevated rates of lung cancer”, whose symptoms include: 

  • Shortness of breath
  • Bloody coughs
  • Recurrent bronchitis or pneumonia 
  • Weakness of voice

Studies Find Connection Between Toxic Silica Dust and Kidney Disease

As far back as 2011, researchers discovered that there was a “strong positive relationship” between long-term exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and chronic kidney disease, yet another degenerative illness that, like silicosis, may require either transplants or dialysis. 

CKD is one of the most serious non-pulmonary medical conditions that engineered stone workers run the risk of developing because of the lack of workplace safety protocol. Kidney disease from RCS exposure typically results in: 

  • Anemia
  • Low calcium levels
  • Loss of appetite
  • High potassium levels

The costs of treatment for CKD can be stratospherically high, and appointments and medications may require you to take time off of work, foregoing critical income at a time when insurance coverage reaches its maximum limits. 

Other Diseases Caused by Respirable Crystalline Silica Exposure

The major diseases associated with overexposure to silica dust often emerge in tandem with a diagnosis of one of the following illnesses, further jeopardizing your health and well-being. If you suspect that you may have one of the compounding conditions connected to RCS overexposure, it is imperative that you first seek medical attention before consulting with your physician to determine its correlation to the inhalation of RCS. 

Maintaining scrupulous records will prove critical if you decide to seek due compensation in a court of law and assist your silicosis lawyer in determining the eligibility and strength of your claims. 

Chronic Bronchitis

Granite workers, coal miners, and gold extractors run a high risk of overexposure to respirable crystalline silica and the subsequent development of silica chronic bronchitis. Also known as chronic sputum production, CB occurs when the breathing tubes in the lungs are exposed to constant irritation and, thereafter, inflammation. 

Chronic bronchitis is a common corollary to COPD, and may result in additional debilitating breathing problems for engineered stone workers. Symptoms of chronic bronchitis from RCS overexposure include: 

  • Cough
  • Cough with mucus
  • Discomfort in the chest
  • Wheezing

Progressive Massive Fibrosis (Pneumoconiosis) 

A common compounding diagnosis associated particularly with accelerated silicosis is progressive massive fibrosis (PMF). In a study analyzing silicosis in Sri Lankan crushing plant workers, a Chest Journal publication concludes that “short exposures” to RCS can result in “accelerated silicosis complicated by PMF”. 

Characterized by the buildup of conglomerate masses of scar tissue in the lungs, pneumoconiosis can cause: 

  • Cough 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Mucus overproduction

Autoimmune Diseases

Aside from seriously damaging critical organs, long-term exposure to respirable crystalline silica may also have the potential to cause autoimmune diseases (AID) by triggering a series of bodily responses that target and attack self-antigens. A 2012 AID meta-study discovered that individuals who worked in the colloquially termed “dusty trades” have a substantially higher chance of developing:

Common Injuries and Damages in Silicosis Lawsuits

It was not for want of knowledge that manufacturers and employers in the engineered stone fabrication industry failed to institute workplace precautions to prevent RCS overexposure – they chose to cut corners. In the process, they placed their employees in harm’s way. 

Now, artificial stone workers are filing silicosis lawsuits against their employers for failing to observe basic worksite protections, inaugurating yet another wave of litigation centered around the aptly named “new asbestos”. Many silicosis lawsuit plaintiffs are alleging that they developed the preceding illnesses on account of inexplicable employer negligence. 

Although it may be too late for most to reverse the permanent medical conditions with which they are actively contending, all are in search of compensation for: 

  • Medical expenses – past, present, and future
  • Lost wages and income
  • Emotional distress
  • Decreased quality of life 

Contact an Experienced Silicosis Lawyer Today

If your workday schedule and weekly paychecks have gradually been replaced with doctor’s appointments and medical bills, you may be eligible to seek both accountability and compensation for your employer’s failure to prioritize your health over its bottom line. 

Our qualified personal injury lawyers are on standby to protect your rights as you tend to your health. In a free consultation, you can learn more about the eligibility and strength of your claims and the potential amount in damages to which you may be entitled. 

We hope that the current and future stone fabrication silicosis lawsuits will be the last that have to address the unconscionable lack of regulations in dusty job workplaces. Permanent physical damage may be irreparable, but accountability is well within reach. 


Matthew Dolman

Personal Injury Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has represented over 11,000 injury victims and has served as lead counsel in over 1000 lawsuits. Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

Learn More

Latest News