Silica Dust Safety Talk
In recent years there has been a lot of talk about silica dust. OSHA has even issued new regulations to protect workers from exposure to silica dust. In the past, there were no regulations and many workers were becoming overexposed to silica and getting sick.
The CDC reports that over 1.7 million workers come in contact with silica dust while at work. All construction job sites are dusty, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are dangerous. If the dust contains pulverized rock and concrete then there is cause for concern. In this silica safety talk, we will discuss what silica is, explore the hazards and health effects associated with it, and give you some ways to prevent overexposure.
What Is Silica? What is Silica Dust?
Silica is one of the most common minerals that you can find in the earth's crust. Glass, beach sand, silicone, and granite all contain silica.
There are two forms of silica: crystalline and noncrystalline. Crystalline silica is the bigger worry of the two for health reasons. The most common form of crystalline silica is quartz. Quartz can be found in sand, gravel, clay, granite diatomaceous earth, and many other forms of rock. Non-crystalline silica is found in glass, silicon carbide, and silicone.
Construction workers can be exposed to silica when cutting, grinding, drilling sanding, mixing, and demolishing materials that could contain silica. The size of the silica particles determine the amount of the risk. When silica particles are airborne, the smaller particles—called silica dust—can be inhaled deep into the lungs where they cause damage. The larger particles do not pose much of a threat because they cannot be inhaled.
Silica Dust Health Hazards and Risks
Overexposure to silica can present many health hazards. When the small particles are inhaled, they can penetrate deep into the lungs causing dangerous and sometimes fatal lung diseases including silicosis, lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease. We will go more into each of these potential health hazards below.
The danger most associated with silica is silicosis. This disease is directly related to inhaling silica dust. As the dust enters the lungs, it causes scar tissue to form. The tissue makes it hard to breathe properly and get the necessary oxygen you need. Silicosis can lead to other health complications and can even be fatal. There is no known cure at this time, which is why prevention is so important.
Multiple studies have shown a relationship between silica dust and the risk for lung cancer. The dust causes the lungs to scar and this scarring can lead to lung cancer. A person can develop lung cancer when the abnormal cells multiply in their lungs and form tumors. If the cancer is not caught early, it can spread to other parts of your body.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
COPD encompasses several diseases that affect the lungs. This includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. With emphysema, the tiny air sacs of the lungs are damaged. With chronic bronchitis, the bronchial tubes are often inflamed. A person with COPD will experience shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing. COPD is typically irreversible and may only get worse with time, although it is treatable with medications.
Another health complication a worker can experience from overexposure to silica is kidney disease. With silica exposure, you run the risk of developing chronic kidney disease which develops over time. Treatments for kidney disease can include medications and if the kidneys shut down completely, dialysis will be needed.
How To Prevent Overexposure To Silica
Now that you understand the health hazards that are associated with breathing in silica dust, it is important to know how to prevent overexposure. Some tips include:
1. Replace Materials
Swap out materials that contain crystalline silica for other materials that do not contain it, if possible. Substituting materials may not always be an option. Ask your foreman about this beforehand.
2. Avoid Wearing Work Clothes Home
Clothing can hold onto a lot of silica dust, so when you get off work and are ready to head home, try changing clothes. If you cannot change, try shaking or dusting off your clothes as much as possible.
3. Use Water Spray
Keeping materials wet is a good way to keep the silica dust down when cutting. Using a water spray can help keep materials like concrete from giving off an abundance of dust when you are cutting into them. Remember that water spray should not be used around electrical equipment or outlets.
4. Use LEV
LEV, or local exhaust ventilation, is a piece of equipment that can hook onto other pieces you use that produce dust. The LEV vacuums up the dust closest to the source and helps eliminate the chances of the particles from becoming airborne. An LEV is a great solution for all dust hazards on a construction site, not just silica.
5. Don't Eat or Drink Around Silica
When you are working in and around silica dust, it is important not to eat or drink anything. You also should not smoke or apply lip balm. If you have to do any of this, you should leave the dust area and wipe your face and hands clean before doing so.
6. Wear A Respirator
A respirator is a device you can wear that controls what you inhale from the air. Like all PPE, wearing a respirator should be used as a last resort if you can not avoid being exposed to high levels of silica by controlling other factors.
Silica Safety Starts With You
Once you understand the hazards of silica and how common it is in the construction industry, you will want to focus on how to prevent overexposure for yourself and others. Knowing what materials can expose the dust is the first step to being more cautious. Even when you are performing a task that will create silica dust there are ways to protect yourself if you follow the simple tips above.
If you are worried about exposure to silica dust on the job site, talk to your foreman. If you think you have been overexposed, you should make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Your health is important to your employer and should not be taken lightly.
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