Rapaport Magazine
Colored Gemstone

New Protocols

AGTA is leading the charge in the fight against silicosis.

By Sheryl Jones

The American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) has launched an initiative to combat the growth of the respiratory disease silicosis in workers in the gemstone industry. Douglas Hucker, CEO of AGTA, explains, “We decided that we needed to address this problem in our industry, which is on the rise due in part to the increased popularity of gemstones and beads.” Jeffrey Bilgore, president of AGTA, created a committee, headed by Bruce Bridges of Bridges Tsavorite and also second vice president of AGTA, to address the problem and develop a protocol for eliminating the disease.

Taking Action
   Silicosis is caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust produced in the mining and cutting of gemstones. According to Bridges, “.3-micron to .5-micron-level dust particles will imbed in the cell lining of the lungs. Over time it builds up, affecting the elasticity. After a while, a person can no longer breathe.” The scarring of the lung tissue is irreversible and there is no cure.
   “We had been discussing silicosis for many years,” says Bilgore. “We were doing a revision of the AGTA code of ethics and while we were doing due diligence, we decided to add in a section on social responsibility. The board unanimously agreed to address this issue.”
Finding a Solution
   Since this disease is spread by airborne particles, creating solutions around grounding the dust and disposing of it before it becomes airborne is the centerpiece to combating it. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), part of the U.S. Department of Labor, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), were great sources of information on the subject. The AGTA worked with them, along with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Workplace Health Without Borders (WHWB), to create preventive steps that are affordable and relatively easy to implement.
   “My family has been in mining for over three generations, specializing in hard rock mining, and silica is always a concern,” Bridges says. “However, we have taken steps to combat it during the mining process.” One way they prevent the spread of dangerous airborne particles in their mines is by utilizing hydraulic drilling equipment. The surface environment of the mine tunnels is kept wet by means of a separate misting system so that the silica will not become airborne. Moisture grounds the particles, preventing them from being inhaled. Bridges says it looks reasonably similar to what you would see in a greenhouse.
   For the same reason, Bridges says, “In the gemstone cutting facilities, using a wet lap, or wet grinder/saw, when cutting gemstones will eliminate a great deal of the dust.” Wearing respirators or face masks during the entire cutting process also adds an extra layer of safety. Once the particles dry, they can become airborne again if they are not cleaned up prior to drying. As a result, wearing a mask and using a sealed and well-filtered vacuum while disposing of the material are important measures in combating the spread of silicosis. Some of the larger factories use large extraction and vacuum systems.

   The AGTA has joined with the International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA) and the Indian Diamond and Color Stone Association (IDCA), along with jewelry associations in India to test some of these preventive measures in small and large cutting factories in Jaipur. Bridges notes, “The involvement of the ICA and IDCA is crucial because of the network of members on the ground overseas where most of the cutting facilities are located. Our efforts will not be effective without worldwide effort.” AGTA hopes to begin working with these cutting facilities by the end of 2016. The test program will help increase understanding of the effectiveness and feasibility of these efforts.

   “The biggest challenge is cultural,” says Bilgore. “In some places, cutting has been done the same way for generations.” Bridges concurs, “When people have done something for so long it can be challenging to change.”
   Hucker says not one solution fits all. “Industry-wide standards are difficult because there are different resources and needs.” Different locations and types of facilities require alternate methods to help solve the problem. Using a system like an extraction system, hydraulic vacuum or wet lap that requires electricity or water can be a problem in more rural areas where these are scarce. Literacy and language are also a barrier, says Hucker. One way to solve this, he says, is to create educational materials that are picture- and graphic-driven.
   Other issues like beards and facial hair that are more common in some locations pose a challenge in wearing masks. “In order for the respirators to work most effectively,” Bridges says, “they need to be well fitted to create the seal. The mask will have a better seal on someone who is clean shaven than someone with a beard because the hair compromises the seal.”
   Hucker points out that once these methods for combating silicosis are implemented, regular use and maintaining of equipment will be important in ensuring effectiveness. Hucker adds that developing a monitoring system to use in the facilities will help measure that effectiveness and evaluate the success of some of the methods. Still Bridges notes, “A big obstacle is to have people follow protocol.” But he remains optimistic: “I have a very positive feeling it will make a difference.”
   “We are the ones benefiting from faceted and bead gemstone material and we want to ensure that everyone benefits from it,” concludes Hucker.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - August 2016. To subscribe click here.

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