Last year, Judge Janis Graham Jack of the Federal District Court in Corpus Christi, TX, questioned the validity of several thousand silica claims that were before her. And in the wake of this questioning, it was found that about 65% of the plaintiffs had also filed claims for asbestos in the past. In a harshly worded decision, Judge Jack, a former nurse, declared that many of the medical findings in the silicosis lawsuit before her were worthless and that they had been â€œmanufactured for money.â€ She remanded the lawsuit to state courts, and since then, more than half of those 10,000 silica claims have been dismissed - most of them voluntarily by the law firms that filed them.
Then in March of this year, the â€œsilicosis lawsuit scandalâ€ took center stage in Congress, with many of the doctors involved pleading the Fifth Amendment (including one doctor who once diagnosed 515 people in a single day and another who diagnosed 297 in one day). In effect, the â€œNext Great Class Action Suit,â€ was turned away - for now.
However, the dangers of silicosis in the stone industry are very real, for a variety of reasons. To begin with, silicosis remains a potentially fatal disease, and it has been a danger to the trade since the stoneworkers of antiquity. As far as the U.S. stone industry is concerned, the term â€œsilicosisâ€ wasn't used in the U.S. until 1915, according to â€œDeadly Dust,â€ a book written by David Rosner, who also pointed out that this was right around the time that the Granite Cutters' Union of Barre, VT, complained that the ailment was â€œclaiming every granite cutter in this vicinity before he reaches 50.â€ And though employer awareness has increased and working conditions have improved dramatically over the course of the 20th century, silicosis remains a safety concern for stone producers - both in the quarry and in the fabrication shop.
But while employee health is obviously a key concern, the avalanche of silica claims in the â€œsilicosis lawsuit scandalâ€ underscores the very real threat of continued lawsuits in the future - ones that could potentially cost a company owner their business.
At the recent Building Stone Institute (BSI) Convention in San Diego, I attended a seminar on silicosis in the workplace. Without getting technical, let me say that there are a lot of things that a fabrication shop needs to know, but there is also a great deal of information readily available. A great start would be to visit www.osha.gov and do a search on â€œsilicosis.â€
Many attendees at the BSI seminar seemed to have a solid handle on silicosis and the risks it presents - both real and imagined. Several said that despite the â€œscare tactics,â€ a business can be protected simply by making sure they implement certain procedures in the workplace: using water when cutting and grinding as needed; using respirators; ensuring that there is adequate dust collection; etc. One company even noted that since smoking increases the risk of silicosis, it bans its employees from smoking - anywhere. But even while some stone industry members understand silicosis and its risks, there are also many new stoneworking firms entering the marketplace, and I fear that many companies out there today are not as diligent in addressing this issue.
It is not only important to have the proper procedures in place, but it is also critical to see that they are followed. Attendees at the seminar stressed the need to explain the dangers of silicosis to its employees; to express to them that it is a deadly disease. This illustrates to employees exactly why the procedures in place need to be strictly followed, and it also demonstrates that you as an employer are working to protect your employees - a key point in defending against lawsuits.
As far as evaluating your operation is concerned, a number of free sources of monitoring were cited. Several company owners reported that many insurance companies will send a representative of their safety department to a fabrication shop to do the necessary particle tests.
The presenter of the seminar, Joe O'Connor of INTEC, also noted that OSHA's consultative branch will come out and do mock inspection of a facility free of charge, including air testing. However, he added that in some cases, violations will be reported to OSHA's enforcement arm if they are not remedied.
It is also important to note that OSHA and the Marble Institute of America have entered a two-year alliance to develop information to help MIA member employers and workers recognize and prevent such hazards as exposure to silica - in addition to handling slabs of stone.
In future issues of Stone World, we will take a closer look at specific procedures being done in the field to prevent silicosis, but in the meantime, it would be wise for fabrication shops to make sure to have an effective silicosis prevention program in place. It's well worth the effort.