The Top 5 Ways to Protect Yourself from Silica Exposure

Exposure to the common silicon compound “silica,” which makes up much of the rocks, sand, and earth we stand on and use every day, has been slowly killing workers for years now. Also known as silicosis, exposure occurs when silica-containing materials are blasted, scraped, cut, or pulverized, and can be lethal. Silicosis, which has no known cure, can present itself anywhere from a few weeks to a few decades after exposure, depending on the exposure severity and length of time. Early signs include chronic coughing, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort. Unfortunately, silicosis is all too common amongst physical labor workers, especially those involved in certain sectors, like construction work or anything involving abrasive sand blasting. Employers have a duty to keep their workers as safe as possible from all known risks, so let’s take a look at the five best ways you can keep your employees safe from silica exposure and silicosis.

1. PPE

Personal protection equipment, or PPE, and its appropriate usage, reigns supreme in many segments of workplace safety, and it’s no different when it comes to crystalline silica dust exposure. The danger of silica comes from its being breathed in and sitting in the lungs, meaning one of the most effective ways to prevent exposure is through the use of respirators. Depending on the grade of equipment, a simple physical barrier mask may be enough to catch and control silica fragments in the air.

However, it is important to note than in some cases, processes involving silica-containing materials might present other outside dangers as well. When sandblasting paint, for example, other breathable, harmful chemicals might be released at the same time. If these particles are finer or harder to filter, it may be necessary to use a more advanced respirator, or one that fully seals to protect the whole face.

Think about things other than breathing as well, eye protection is vastly important; when particles are small enough to be breathed in, they are small enough to float into the eyeball and become a dangerous irritant. Make sure that goggles (similar to this anti-fog one) are worn at all times when dealing with any processes that might release silica dust. Additionally, employees should be made to wear disposable or washed-daily full body suits over the clothing they wear to work. This is because silica dust trapped on or in clothing can be dangerous to an employee after they remove their PPE and head home for the day. If employees leave their dusty work suits at the job site, or throw them away, the exposure risk outside of the actual work day is all but eliminated. Employers should also have safety signs (like this PPE sign) communicating to their employees that proper PPE is required.

2. Substitute With Safer Materials

For employers, one of the absolute best ways you can help keep your employees safe is to simply substitute silica materials with those that are safer. Sand blasting is a common example when talking about silica exposure, as it is a notorious line of work for silicosis. For this reason, let’s use it in an illustrative example: Despite the name’s implication, “sand blasting” can be completed with materials that are not sand. Other materials, ranging from baking soda, to corn cob granules, to plastic media can be used instead. Let’s say we have two employers, company A and company B, that are both involved in the sand blasting and cleaning business. Upon learning about silica exposure and its dangers, company A replaces its blasting media with corn cob granules for a nominal fee, while company B stays the course. The result? Company A’s employees are undeniably, measurably safer than company B’s. OSHA even notes that other labor jurisdictions have been doing this for some time:

Great Britain and the European Economic Community have restricted the use of silica sand as an abrasive blasting material since 1949, and 1966, respectively. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recommended since 1974 that silica sand (or other substances containing more than one percent free silica) be prohibited as an abrasive blasting material and that less hazardous substitutes be used. There are a number of materials available as alternative abrasive blasting media. – Stops and Blasters

You read that right, the banning of blasting materials with a high concentration of silica has been suggested since 1974, and was banned years before in Europe. Why hasn’t it been banned here? That’s an investigation for another article, but it’s worth noting that the passing of 40 years hasn’t changed NIOSH’s stance.

3. Employee Behavior

While ultimate responsibility falls to employers, workers can do things in their personal lives to help reduce their risk of exposure and severity of symptoms should they acquire silicosis. Smoking, for example, complicates silicosis symptoms. Additionally, the growth of large beards and mustaches may prevent respirators from forming an effective seal to the face, allowing particles to enter the breathing apparatus. Ensuring hands are washed immediately after working, and before eating or drinking can also help to limit exposure to silica dust.

4. Monitoring Sessions

Employers should be monitoring work environments regularly to keep silica levels low. Plus, a sudden spike or difference in levels can alert managers to a problem in either worker process, procedure, or materials. Employers should also encourage regular screening for their workers, as an x-ray is the only way to conclusively diagnose silicosis as it develops.

5. Training

Most of these solutions, from the wearing of proper PPE to respirator fit, to just a basic knowledge of what silicosis is, won’t do you much good as a manager if your employees don’t have the information as well. Training sessions should be used to share the information you know about silicosis and its prevention with your workers. Most employees have probably never heard of the condition or its consequences, which can make your safety measures seem unwarranted and excessive. Once you’ve got all of your other steps taken care of, or at least thought up, integrate them into your training and you’ll be well on your way to a safe, modern, and silicosis-free workplace.

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