Crystalline Silica Exposure – The Quick n’ Dirty Guide to Silicosis Prevention

In the United States alone, millions of workers per year are exposed to a threat that many of us don’t even know about, let alone have the proper information to accurately address and prevent. In fact, silicosis is a relatively unknown condition due to the long dormancy period that usually occurs between affliction and the presentation of symptoms. Additionally, specific industrial workers are generally at a much higher risk for it. Silicosis, in short, occurs when workers breath in fine crystalline silica powder, which is then trapped in the lungs. Silica dust can then cause breathing troubles, chest pain, and even death, with the nasty additional side effect of exacerbating other lung conditions like cancer.

What Is Silica and Where Is It Found?

Silica itself is a compound constructed of one of the most abundant elements on earth, silicon. Silica makes up many of the rocks, dirt, and natural terrains we run into on a daily basis, and is completely harmless. Silica only becomes dangerous to workers, to the point of being carcinogenic (cancer-causing), when it is ground, pulverized, or cut in such a way that tiny, floating, breathable fragments are released into the air. Professionals involved in sandblasting, stone cutting, or any other activity in which silica is disturbed are at a high risk for silicosis, or a poisoning of the lungs by silica dust. Most people don’t think twice about a bit of dust stirred up when crushing rocks or moving materials about, and that’s what makes silicosis so deceptively dangerous. Additionally, silicosis can have dormancy periods ranging two decades or more, depending on the amount and rate of exposure, meaning that many workers developing symptoms today were exposed years ago. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is that little may have been done in the interim period to save others from exposure, who may start to exhibit their own signs of silicosis down the road. Let’s take a look at prevention methods for safety managers.

Preventing Silica Exposure In Your Work Place

According to assessment of silica:
The current OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL) for breathable crystalline silica (quartz) is 100 µg/m3 as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) [29 CFR**1910.1000]. – Crystalline Silica Awareness

Simple, right? OK, maybe not. Because silica exposure often flies under the radar, it is important that you monitor air quality of all work environments for particles in the air (this can also uncover additional threats to worker health). While this exposure level may be deemed acceptable by OSHA, constant checking in day to day work would be required to ensure that exposure levels never exceed appropriate ones. For this reason, it’s generally accepted that wearing preventative personal protection equipment every day is the best way to protect against fluctuation in exposure levels, and thus silicosis itself.

PPE: So what kind of PPE can help workers stay safe from breathable dust? Respirators, for one! Respirators/filtration masks are of the utmost importance for any workers exposed to silica dust on a regular basis. You’ll need to make sure that the masks meet OSHA/NIOSH standards for filtration of silica particles; while silica particles are small, most masks have a fine enough filtration size to catch the fragments without problem. Masks should seal securely around the mouth and nose. In addition, employees should wear eye protection, ideally goggles (similar to this one) that form a seal around the upper half of the face, in order to prevent irritants from entering the eye.

Safety managers should also consider purchasing protective garments that cover a worker’s clothes while sandblasting or working in a high exposure environment. These garments can be disposable and thrown away after each work day, or washable and simply left at work each evening. The idea here is to take dust that might have stuck to workers’ clothes and then been tracked into their cars, homes, etc., and leave it at work/on the PPE. This prevents workers from further exposure after their face masks have been removed for the day.

Lastly, it might be a great idea to install safety signs or even floor signs (like these floor signs) to help communicate to employees that proper PPE is required. Communication is highly important when it comes to the safety of your employees.

Water & Environmental Solutions: Sometimes safety measures can be implemented at the work environment level rather than a personal one. Water sprays can help to capture and weight/remove harmful dust and particles from the air in a work environment. Misting machines can help to serve this purpose on most work sites. You also might consider filtration systems and fans as well, depending on the containment of the exposure environment and the practicality of such solutions.

Substitution: Going just one level deeper, you can get at the root of the problem by simply substituting silica-containing materials in your work processes for safer counterparts. For blasting, a countless list of alternatives exist. Silica-containing construction materials may also be available as well. For home and building development, consider taking any stone or silica-containing fixtures (counter tops, etc.) and buying them pre-cut, rather than having to custom sheer them down in your own facilities. This pre-cutting process can often be done by machines at the manufacturer, rather than in person by your workers, saving everyone involved from unnecessary exposure.

Closing Notes: Lastly, worker behavior can also have a direct influence on their silica dust exposure. Workers should make sure they are never eating, drinking, applying cosmetics, or otherwise exposing themselves to accidental silica inhalation or consumption while on the job. Employees should always leave the work site and wash their hands thoroughly before engaging in any such activities. Worker habits, like smoking, can also complicate silicosis. An integrated training program that educates workers on the risks of silica exposure and encourages them to be screened (this is done via x-ray) can help save lives and catch disease development early on. For more information and training materials, you can check out NIOSH, OSHA, and the Department of Labor websites.

Additional Resources