Worker health and safety is perennial issue in America. NCL’s early leaders, Florence Kelley and Frances Perkins, fought for safety in mines, mills, and factories Both lived through the tragedy of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire in 1911. Indeed, Perkins was instrumental in developing fire safety reforms with New York State officials in the aftermath of that terrible event.
In the past two weeks, two other developments demonstrated the continued importance of keeping worker safety on the front burner. OSHA, which is the federal agency charged with overseeing worker health and safety, issued long-delayed rules to sharply reduce exposure to silica among workers. NCL testified in support of the rule in 2014 and applauded the issuance of the final rule.
Secondly, a federal court sentenced Upper Big Branch mine operator, Don Blankenship, to one year in prison for his role in skirting safety laws that resulted in the deaths of 29 miners.
Related to the silica rule, The New York Times recently highlighted the plight of quartz countertop workers.
I hadn’t known that these sleek, trendy countertops found in the toniest of homes posed a risk to the workers who cut the quartz. The danger comes from inhaling silica dust, the mineral tied to silicosis, a debilitating and deadly lung disease, when the quartz is cut. In fact, quartz contains twice the amount of silica levels as marble, they are cheaper than marble and are attractive and easy to clean. But the consequences for workers are dire: In Israel, 300 quartz countertop workers have developed silicosis and 22 have had lung transplants.
The NY Times story notes that we know less about cases in the US, but a Houston quartz countertop worker whose picture is shown in the article is 39 years old and can only breathe with the help of an oxygen tank. One of the manufacturers of these countertops has threatened legal action against medical publications describing the hazards of working with quartz.
Manufacturers of quartz countertop say that the danger from inhaling quartz silica particles can be eliminated using controls like protective respirators and equipment designed to trap silica dust, like power saws that release streams of water.
We can only hope that the new silica rules issued by OSHA will protect workers in the United States who are cutting quartz for countertops. That’s precisely who the new rules are intended protect and we will be watching to see if they do the job.