The Dangers of Crystalline Silica Exposure

Know the Risk and Prevent Silica Exposure

You aren’t likely to come into contact with silica on your own time. However, many workers are at a high risk of being exposed to respirable crystalline silica. This common mineral is used in materials such as stone and sand.

During manufacturing the dust from the silica can enter your lungs and cause life-threatening side effects. According to the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there are around 2.3 million people who are at risk of workplace silica exposure. These exposures are spread out among 600,000 workplaces.

This means that millions of people could be more susceptible to lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease. Silica exposure also causes a unique and incurable disease called Silicosis. This illness impacts your lungs and can ultimately lead to death or disability.

Working with respirable crystalline silica is not something to take lightly. Companies are responsible for giving employees the tools to protect themselves from inhaling the material.

Methods of Creating Silica Dust

These miniscule silica particles are spread through the air during a variety of industrial activities. Workers should take precautions when working with quartz-containing materials such as stones, bricks, rocks, concrete and mortar. If your occupation involves sanding, sawing, grinding, drilling, chipping or crushing these items you could risk inhaling dangerous substances including silica.

Dust can also be created when hauling materials and dumping them. Or during the demolition of structures built with bricks or concrete.

The National Cancer Institute says that most crystalline silica comes from quartz products. Their website warns that popular products are manufactured using silica including cleansers, makeup, sculpting clays and glazes, pet litter, talcum powder, caulk and paint.

The amount of crystalline silica in each material differs but even items with small concentrations can put your health at serious risk. The dust can very easily enter the depths of your lungs and cause harm.

Who is Most Commonly Exposed to Respirable Crystalline Silica

OSHA has created two separate compliance guides for protecting workers. One applies directly to construction and another broad one is used for general industry and maritime work. 

Construction workers tasked with regularly sawing, grinding, milling, drilling and crushing materials that can contain crystalline silica are listed as being at a higher risk by OSHA. There are some workers that will be exposed to silica but in a level below the safety limit of 25 μg/m3 as an 8-hour time weighted average.

These smaller exposures occur during jobs such as concrete work. Carpenters, plumbers and electricians may also come into contact with small silica traces while drilling.

The general guide applies to people whose occupation does not involve the building of new things. It explains that someone using a drill to repair power lines is covered under the guidelines but not someone who is installing new power lines. Those responsible for establishing new structures are protected under the construction rules instead.

In addition to maritime and construction, coal industry workers can come into contact with dangerous levels of silica dust. Employees who cleaned up a Tennessee coal ash pond spill in 2008 allege they’ve experienced serious health complications and some of their peers passed away due to their exposure.

Protect Yourself and Employees from Silica Exposure

Silica becomes respirable once it is in dust form. One of the most common ways that is suggested for keeping this dust at bay is to apply water. Many dust-prone areas are sprayed down with water to prevent the dust from ever forming.

Another option is to ventilate and filter out the dusty air. By placing exhaust hoods at the place where dust is forming and spreading you can filter out the contaminated air.

OSHA’s construction guide goes through common tasks and matches them with a reliable form of mitigation. Some examples use collecting dust in a vacuum system, watering down saw blades and improving ventilation.

Another recommendation is to limit employee exposure and provide properly fitted respirators. OSHA acknowledges that wearing respirators comes with its limitations but these can directly protect an employee from breathing in dangerous air.

If your workplace handles silica, OSHA requires the implementation of exposure control plans with multiple ways to keep everyone on the job site safe.

Testing to Identify Crystalline Silica

You can better understand your risks by testing for respirable crystalline silica in the workplace.

These tests help make sure you’re not exceeding safe limits and indicate whether or not you’ll need to increase protections.

EHS offers the analysis of respirable crystalline silica by NIOSH 7602 through the AIHA Laboratory Accreditation Program. Learn more about renting our laboratories pump to test for silica.