Doyle APC is reviewing potential cases on behalf of individuals who developed occupational silicosis, other pulmonary diseases, or certain autoimmune diseases due to the inhalation of silica dust.
Silica inhalation-related illnesses often affect industrial workers, particularly fabricated stone workers, sandblasters, miners, masons, rock drillers, and glass manufacturers. Many people who make, finish, or install natural or manufactured stone countertop products have been diagnosed with silicosis in the past few years. During the process of cutting, grinding, and installing these stone countertop products, tiny particles of crystalline silica can be inhaled by workers.
Over time, silica dust collects in the lungs, causing severe pulmonary diseases, including silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and emphysema. Silica exposure can also cause autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma.
Silicosis and Silica Dust Exposure
Silicosis is an incurable, progressively disabling, and sometimes fatal lung disease caused by silica dust particles becoming trapped in lung tissue. It is a type of pneumoconiosis, which is a group of certain interstitial lung diseases caused by the inhalation of dust. Asbestosis, silicosis, and black lung disease (caused by inhaling coal dust) are the most common types of pneumoconiosis. Silicosis is an occupational lung disease seen almost exclusively in individuals who work where crystalline silica dust is present.
Silica dust exposure has been linked to several severe and life-threatening health problems, including silicosis, lung cancer, COPD, autoimmune disorders, and kidney disease. Symptoms of silicosis include shortness of breath, chronic cough, fever, fatigue, weight loss, and cyanosis (lack of oxygen in the bloodstream characterized by bluish skin).
Worldwide, tens of thousands of individuals die of silicosis yearly. Although the number of deaths in the United States is low compared to many other countries, there has been an increase in silicosis-related deaths in recent years. This is likely due to the increased popularity of engineered stone countertops in homes in the United States with their high silica content. Using engineered stone can result in workers inhaling large amounts of crystalline silica into their lungs over a short period.
Individuals with silicosis are susceptible to additional pulmonary diseases such as tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, mycobacterium infection, and compensatory emphysema. Crystalline silica is also a known human carcinogen and can cause lung cancer.
Long-term silica exposure is also linked to autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma (also called “systemic sclerosis”). These systemic autoimmune diseases have no cure and can be severely debilitating.
Because silicosis is an incurable and progressively worsening disease, treatment options focus on alleviating the symptoms and trying to slow the progress of the disease. In the early stages of the disease, using bronchodilators and corticosteroids is the usual treatment. Bronchodilators help open the airways by relaxing the bands of muscle around the airways, letting the person breathe easier. Steroids, like Prednisone, help reduce inflammation, swelling, and mucus production in the airways.
Unfortunately, long-term steroid use itself can cause serious complications, including weight gain, fluid retention, osteoporosis, and diabetes. As silicosis progresses, oxygen therapy is typically the next treatment option. A lung transplant becomes the only treatment option in the latter stages of the disease.
If you or a family member were exposed to silica dust as part of your job duties, worked in this position for at least six months, and have been diagnosed with silicosis, lung cancer, emphysema, COPD, or autoimmune diseases lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or scleroderma/systemic sclerosis, then you may have a silica exposure claim.
Individuals who work or worked in a job where they were exposed to silica dust should closely monitor their health for any symptoms of a pulmonary or autoimmune issue. Individuals experiencing shortness of breath, persistent cough, fevers, fatigue, weight loss, or cyanosis (a bluish tint to their skin) should get a chest x-ray to make sure these are not the early symptoms of silicosis or other silica dust-induced pulmonary diseases. Likewise, stone fabrication workers experiencing symptoms of autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or scleroderma should consult their doctor and make sure their doctor is aware of their occupational exposure to silica.
Typically, silicosis is a latent disease that does not manifest until decades after exposure. However, doctors are now seeing silicosis and related illnesses develop in younger workers, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s.
Most of the younger workers developing silicosis worked in the stone fabrication industry. The increased use of engineered stone with its high crystalline silica content, which exposes workers to more silica dust over a shorter period, is likely to cause this abbreviated latency period.
Fabricated Stone Workers Have a Heightened Risk of Silicosis
Fabricated stone workers, sandblasters, miners, masons, rock drillers, and glass manufacturers are all at risk of silica dust inhalation and the diseases accompanying this exposure. However, studies have shown that fabricated stone workers, particularly those using hand tools to cut, grind, or polish the stone, are most at risk of developing silica-related illnesses.
Both natural and engineered stone are used to fabricate stone countertops. While both types of stone have crystallized silica, the engineered stone consists of over 90% silica, about double the silica content of natural stone. Engineered stone is made by taking crushed quartz and infusing it with a polyester resin to improve its strength, hardness, and gloss, which makes it popular for use as countertops in homes.
California and Federal Health Agencies Raise the Alarm
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (“NIOSH”), and the California Occupational Safety Hazards Administration (“CalOSHA”) have each issued public warnings about the increased incidence of serious silica inhalation-related illnesses by stone industry workers.
The risk of silicosis or other silica-related illnesses is significant for those working in the fabricated stone industry. While studies have shown varied rates of prevalence, some studies in Australia found that 1 out of every 5 workers in the industry had silicosis. Of the approximately 4,000 workers in the industry in California, CalOSHA has estimated between 12% and 21% will develop silicosis, and up to 33% of these individuals could ultimately die from the disease. It is estimated that about 96,000 individuals in the United States work in the stone fabrication industry. Using CalOSHA’s silicosis prevalence rate of 12% to 21% would mean that between 12,000 and 21,000 of the stone fabrication workforce in the United States will develop silicosis.
A recent study by UCLA and UCSF doctors found that nearly a fifth had died among dozens of California workers who got silicosis from grinding countertops. Their median age at death was 46. More than half of these workers suffered delays in getting diagnosed with silicosis, as the disease was mistaken for bacterial pneumonia or tuberculosis. The study also revealed over a third of the workers already had severe lung scarring by the time they were diagnosed with silicosis.
Epicenter in Pacoima, Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley
Most of the California stone workers participating in the UCLA study were from the Pacoima and San Fernando Valley areas of Los Angeles. Pacoima is considered the epicenter of the stone fabrication industry in California. Pacoima area workers have not only seen an increased incidence of silicosis, but a significant percentage of these individuals are young workers in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.
Employers must protect workers from silica dust exposure
Due to silica being a known carcinogen and inhalation of silica linked to several severe and life-threatening illnesses, there are extensive regulations about silica exposure in the workplace. Employers must monitor the air and test for the level of crystalline silica present. If an employee is exposed to silica dust more than the daily allowable limit, the employer must take steps to reduce the silica dust exposure to or below the daily permissible limit. These initial steps, called engineering controls, should include ensuring any saws, drills, grinders, or sanders have a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air filter or HEPA filter.
Also, employers must make sure any saws, grinders, or drills used on silica-containing stone have a water delivery system that delivers water to the area of the stone being sawed, ground, or drilled. Using these “wet” devices helps lower the amount of silica dust in the air. Employers may also have to isolate those areas where fabrication work on silica-containing stone will occur by using enclosures and walls. The employer must also place these warning signs in these areas.
If the engineering controls are not enough to keep an employee’s silica dust exposure below the daily allowable limit, the employer must give the employee a HEPA-equipped respirator. Silica particulates are easily respirable due to their tiny size. This small size, about 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, is why standard surgical masks are ineffective and HEPA-equipped respirators are needed. If an employee must wear a respirator more than 30 days per year, then the employer must also provide the employee with periodic medical exams, which include a lung function test, chest x-ray, and a TB test.
The above is just a brief overview of an employer’s duty to protect employees from silica dust exposure. Because implementing the above controls could be costly, many small to mid-size fabricators of silica-containing stone do not follow the silica safety regulations.
The legal claims in silicosis lawsuits
Several potential legal claims may be asserted in a silica exposure lawsuit. However, these claims generally fall into two categories: (1) worker’s compensation claims and (2) product liability and negligence-based claims.
Worker compensation claims may be applicable because these illnesses are usually caused by silica exposure at work. Worker’s compensation claims are claims against the company that employs the worker. Worker’s compensation claims are favorable because the worker need not prove the employer acted negligently or recklessly in causing the worker’s injuries.
Under worker’s compensation laws, the employer is liable for all injuries a worker sustained while working in their employment duties, despite any negligence or recklessness on the employer’s part. The downside to a worker’s compensation claim is the damages available to an employee may be more limited than those in a traditional civil lawsuit.
A silicosis lawsuit may also include traditional negligence and product liability claims. The facts of each case will determine what parties would be possible defendants, but they typically include the manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of the silica-containing product. The most common claims are strict liability failure to warn, strict liability design defect, negligent failure to warn, negligent design, and negligent failure to follow safety regulations about occupational silica exposure. To recover under these claims, the injured worker must typically show negligence or recklessness by the manufacturer, distributor, or seller.
The time limit to file or “Statute of Limitations”
All legal claims for damages have deadlines. How long you have to file a silica exposure claim will depend on which state’s law will apply to your case and what claims can be asserted. However, the statute of limitations for most claims in a silica exposure case will be two or three years from the date of injury. The date of injury can also vary from state to state, but for most jurisdictions, the date when you were diagnosed with the silica-related illness or when symptoms of the disease started to manifest.
Because when the statute of limitations begins to run is determined by the specific facts of each case, any person who believes they might have a potential claim should contact an attorney as soon as possible.
If you or a loved one worked in the stone fabrication or installation industry and have been diagnosed with a silica dust-related illness or are suffering from symptoms, contact our lawyers today for a free consultation. Our attorneys have significant experience litigating occupational exposure cases and other mass torts. We are investigating claims on behalf of victims who developed silicosis, lung cancer, COPD, or other serious pulmonary diseases due to occupational exposure to silica dust.
We take cases throughout the United States, and all cases are handled on a contingency fee basis.