Mark McMunn

M&M Marble Company

It is often said that a shop is only as safe as its most careless employee. But when a new material or technology arrives, everyone is equally inexperienced, and the danger may actually increase because no one knows of any potential dangers – and sometimes that includes the very producers of that technology. It is one thing to have safety procedures in place for known dangers,  but what procedure can prepare us for dangers that are not yet known?

In the industry’s recent past we experienced this very situation with the introduction of CNC technology and the materials required to streamline CNC production to meet the ever-increasing demand from the kitchen countertop segment of the industry.

Thirty-five years ago there were no CNC machines to speak of, slabs were much smaller than they are today, and 2cm was the prevailing slab thickness. It was a much simpler time, and producing finished work relied totally on the craftsman’s skill and experience. The workers back then had a very intimate knowledge of every type of stone because they held the material in their hands everyday. In contrast, because of new automated processes, many of today’s workers are almost completely removed from the stone that goes through the shop; that removal can cause complacency.

The aim here is not to lament the demise of the stone craftsman but to show how evolving CNC and materials technology has changed the safety landscape in ways that went unnoticed and caused several fatalities. Let us examine how this happened.

As the countertop business grew exponentially, the time-honored concept of “better, faster, cheaper” was being delivered by CNC technology. At the same time, the slabs were becoming longer, taller, thicker and deadlier – but this seemed to go unnoticed. It became clear some years ago that large 3cm slabs were better suited to CNC equipment than 2cm, which drove demand for these now bigger, thicker, and much heavier slabs.

The point is that from the quarry to the CNC shop, 3cm slabs increased the velocity of sales and increased profits – nothing wrong with that. The problem was that industry safety awareness regarding these new giant slabs was slow in catching up to the quarry and factory’s ability to produce these larger blocks and slabs. The new dangers became clear a few years ago when there was a rash of deaths in shops and inside shipping containers as workers were crushed to death by falling slabs and bundles that tipped over without warning. Many shops were handling giant slabs with equipment that was meant for much smaller and thinner slabs. Finally, it appears that the industry has realized that you must have adequate equipment and training to handle these large slabs versus the smaller and thinner slabs of the past.

Right now new materials have arrived on the scene in the form of engineered stone and also giant ceramic slabs, and once again the industry is dealing with a situation where the technology, in this case material technology, is ahead of the experience of the typical fabrication shop. We have to ask ourselves if our existing safety procedures we now have in place for natural stone will work the same with these new materials? At first glance the answer appears to be yes, but we must be aware that these new materials may require new and different safety procedures that have not yet been revealed.  

So how do you keep the workplace safe from a danger that is not yet known? The answer is simply to create a culture of safety that is ever vigilant to any dangers that may not be so obvious. Encourage everyone in the organization to speak up about potential dangers when they see one. This may seem like a boring and rote response to the question of safety, but do not be “that shop” that when investigated after an injury or fatality appears to have been aware enough of the danger to have avoided the accident. 

How did my shop deal with the move to bigger and more dangerous slabs?  We went from moving 3cm slabs with six guys and a dolly, to investing in slab-handling equipment like a forklift, a vacuum lifter, and an overhead crane. 

The point I really want to drive home is that changes occur so rapidly that we are either unaware or too lax about buying new equipment to handle the changes, or we are so busy getting the work out that we put off making changes we know should be made. Keep your safety awareness ahead of the changing technology curve. Investigate new tech when it comes available, invest when it is feasible, and be safe.