Long Term Effects of Silica Exposure

With the beautiful weather of spring and summer often come the construction crews who like to take advantage of the seasons for completing projects. Whether it is a couple of guys putting up a custom wall made from leftover concrete, or major construction companies building a new office building, they can all make a mess. Well messes can be easily cleaned up, construction work often results in a very dangerous type of dust, known as silica.

Silica is one of the most commonly found minerals in nature. It is found in rock, stone, granite and many other materials. While silica is not harmful within these materials, it can be deadly when it is breathed in. Respirable crystalline silica is commonly found on jobsites around the world. When employees cut stone or other materials that contain the silica, it is broken down into dust that can be 100 times smaller than a grain of sand. When this dust is breathed in, it can cause significant damage over time.

According to the CDC,

At least 1.7 million US workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in a variety of industries and occupations, including construction, sandblasting, and mining.

-www.cdc.gov – Silica

When employees don’t use proper respiratory protection, they can expose their lungs to damage and irritation which can lead to the development of medical conditions including silicosis, lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis and a variety of other lung and airway diseases.

Stop Silicosis

OSHA Proposing New Safety Regulations

OSHA is proposing new safety regulations for a variety of industries, including construction, which would help to limit the exposure of employees to silica dust. Estimates based on the proposal suggest that, if implemented, it will save 700 lives per year, and help to prevent 1600 new cases of silicosis annually. This is a huge benefit to employees, but it can also help the employers reduce their overall risk as well.

Exposure to this dust can cause employees to miss more work, and become less productive while on the job. While the most serious risks typically don’t develop until years after exposure, the day to day respiration of this dust can leave employees more susceptible to a wide range of less serious medical problems.

The new safety regulations being proposed by OSHA would update and replace the 40 year old guidelines, which are extremely out of date. It would reduce the permissible exposure limits for crystalline silica, and also help to standardize these limits, which currently vary from industry to industry.  There will also be requirements proposed to limit the amount of silica that is produced on these workplaces, and ensure employees are protected with the proper gear.

Preventing Silica from Entering the Air

One of the most effective ways to help limit exposure to silica is to contain the dust when it is being created. There are several ways this can be done, and in many cases it is possible to almost eliminate the dust from the job site. The two most effective methods at preventing silica dust from entering the air are:

  • Cyclone Vacuum – Cyclone based vacuum systems have been proven to be very effective at pulling the dust in before it can cause any problems. Many tools that are used for cutting stone or other silica containing materials can be equipped with a vacuum hose, so the dust is sucked up as it is being created.
  • Wet Saws – Another effective way to limit exposure to silica is to apply water to a saw blade when cutting silica containing materials. This dramatically reduces the amount of silica dust that enters the air. Many stone cutting saws today are equipped with water to keep the area wet while cutting.

Personal Protection Gear

Long term exposure to silica was a major problem in the early 1900’s, resulting in thousands of people becoming disabled, and thousands more dying from preventable diseases. In the 1930’s silica was found to be a major cause to many different deadly diseases. Many employers began offering, or even requiring employees to wear face masks to help prevent the inhalation of the silica dust.

Today there are many different options available to provide improved respiration for employees. Depending on the environment they are working in, they can wear ‘gas mask’ style gear that will filter out the dust, or even wear a respirator that has its own supply of clean air. In addition, the use of safety goggles (such as these) can help to eliminate the possibility of silica coming into contact with the eyes. These options virtually eliminate the risks associated with long term exposure to silica. Unfortunately, however, some employers only offer simple face masks, or even nothing at all to protect their employees. This is especially common in jobs where the exposure to silica is less frequent.

Preparing for the Updated Guidelines

OSHA is currently only proposing changes related to silica dust, which means employers still have some time before any changes are put in place. That being said, however, it is a good idea to take proactive steps to help improve workplace safety before OSHA makes them a requirement. Posting pertinent safety signs regarding workplace hazards also helps employers to stay in compliance with OSHA. In addition to being ready when any changes do come out, it is also important for providing a safer workplace for employees, or anyone who happens to be in the area.

Long term exposure to silica creates life threatening health problems for employees, and if employers don’t offer adequate protection, it could leave them open to litigation in the future. The risks of diseases like silicosis are well documented, so employers everywhere should take decisive action to help stop this deadly disease, and others like it. With a small investment in safety equipment today, employers can have improved production and a more predictable future.

Additional Resources