Granite, like most natural stones, contains radioactive material. While this isn’t much of a concern for a person who spends a few hours in a kitchen with granite countertops every day, new research by David Bernhardt, Linda Kincaid, and Al Gerhart suggests that the workers who fabricate those countertops might have reason to worry.
When they cut granite slabs to fit a room and to have nice edges, corners, and cut-outs for sinks and appliances, workers’ saws can create a lot of dust, and that dust can contain uranium, thorium, and other radioactive materials. If the dust isn’t properly controlled and the workers are not wearing the right protective equipment, they can inhale the dust, where it can cause real damage to the vulnerable tissues in their lungs. Based on limited sampling and some conservative assumptions about control equipment and exposure duration, Bernhardt, Kincaid, and Gerhart suggest that stone cutters could potentially be exposed to radiation levels many times greater than recommended exposure levels for the general public.
Granite’s radiation problem is not new, and the Marble Institute of America, one of the industry’s main trade associations, was quick to commission its own study to challenge the worker exposure research. The MIA-commissioned study questioned Bernhardt et al.’s sampling techniques and statistical analysis. And the MIA, for its part, argued that it is standard practice within the industry to use wet-cutting techniques (which would limit dust but weren’t used when Kincaid and Gerhart did their sampling). But by the MIA’s own account, over 25 percent of stone fabricators don’t use those techniques.
Where does OSHA fit into this picture? On the enforcement side, the Scripps Howard News Service report on Bernhardt et al.’s work notes that:
Inspecting 133 of the nation's 64,000 stone cutting facilities from October 2007 to September 2008, authorities from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- part of the U.S. Department of Labor -- issued 185 citations for respiratory violations and 54 citations for air contaminants, according to OSHA data.
These data, bad enough in their own right, are particularly disturbing when you take into consideration that OSHA’s enforcement only reaches the workshops where rough cuts are made – OSHA inspectors probably will not get out to job sites where workers might not have proper ventilation, proper protective equipment, or wet-cutting tools.
On the standard-setting front, OSHA is currently working on updating its standard for occupational exposure to crystalline silica, the main health hazard linked to granite cutting. The current standard is based on obsolete science from the 1950s and ‘60s. An update is long overdue and, according to OSHA, “[b]oth industry and worker groups have recognized that a comprehensive standard for crystalline silica is needed to provide for exposure monitoring, medical surveillance, and worker training.” If it is not too late in the process now, this would be a good opportunity for OSHA to consider how a new standard, while designed primarily to prevent silicosis, might have the added benefit of limiting workers’ exposure to radioactive materials.