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Silicosis Toolbox Talk

In this toolbox talk, learn about the dangers of silicosis, its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options, as well as how to prevent it.

Silicosis Safety Talk

With all the talk about silicosis in the news, OSHA has put out new regulations concerning silica dust and overexposure to it. This in turn has put more focus on the health hazards of silica dust by employers as well as employees. To prevent silicosis, it is important to first understand what silica dust is, how it silicosis is diagnosed, and the health effects it may have on your body.

What is Silica?

Silica is one of the most common minerals in the earth's crust, found in common materials like glass, beach sand, silicone, and granite. Crystalline silica—found in sand, gravel, clay, granite diatomaceous earth, and many other forms of rock—is the dangerous type of silica, as it is a health concern. When silica dust is created on a construction site (through actions like cutting, grinding, drilling, etc.) fine silica particles known as silica dust get airborne and are inhaled deep into the lungs where they cause damage.

What Is Silicosis?

Silicosis is a form of lung disease that is caused by inhaling silica dust. Over time, silica dust builds up in the lungs and breathing passages, which in turn leads to scarring, and makes it hard to breathe.

Most people who get silicosis are workers who have been exposed to silica dust at work. Jobs in mining, construction, plaster or drywall installation, sandblasting, and roofing may put you at higher risk for developing silicosis.

Three Types of Silicosis

There are 3 types of silicosis: acute, chronic, and accelerated.

Acute Silicosis

Acute silicosis is where symptoms happen a few weeks up to 3 years after exposure to a large amount of silica dust.

Chronic Silicosis

Chronic Silicosis is where problems may not show up until decades after they have been exposed to low or moderate amounts of silica dust. This is the most common type as symptoms may be mild at first and slowly worsen.

Accelerated Silicosis

Accelerated silicosis is where the symptoms become noticeable 5 to 10 years after heavy exposure to silica and they can worsen quickly.

What Are The Symptoms Of Silicosis?

Some early symptoms of silicosis can include:

  • Nagging cough

  • Phlegm

  • Trouble breathing

Some later symptoms of silicosis can include:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Fatigue

  • Weight loss

  • Chest pain

  • Fever that comes on suddenly

  • Shortness of breath

  • Swollen legs

  • Blue lips

If you have been exposed to silica dust and notice any of these symptoms, you should contact your health care provider immediately to get diagnosed.

Silicosis risk on construction site.

How Is Silicosis Diagnosed?

When you visit your health care provider, they will listen to your concerns, check for symptoms, and they can also do tests that will help determine whether or not you have developed silicosis. These tests may include:

  • Chest x-rays or CT scan - this test can check your lungs for scars.

  • Bronchoscopy - with this test, the doctor will run a long, thin tube with a tiny camera on the end into your lungs and check for damage.

  • Biopsy - if a lung tissue biopsy is taken the doctor will guide a needle through the chest and into the lungs to take a sample of the nodule. Then it will be checked under a microscope for signs of silicosis.

  • Sputum test - this test is used to evaluate other lung diseases such as tuberculosis.

Treatment Options for Silicosis

While there is no cure for silicosis, there are treatment options that can help manage your symptoms. Possible treatment options include:

  • Medications such as inhaled steroids to reduce lung mucus and bronchodilators to help relax the breathing passages.

  • Oxygen therapy via a small portable tank that gives extra oxygen to help reduce fatigue.

  • Lung transplant surgery if the lung damage is severe.

One major lifestyle change that can help with silicosis is to stop smoking if you are a smoker. Smoking and secondhand smoke make the lung damage worse.

If you suspect you have silicosis, it is important to see a healthcare provider to get a proper diagnosis and to come up with a treatment plan.

How to Prevent Silicosis

The only way to prevent silicosis is to reduce exposure to silica dust. On the jobsite, you can prevent silicosis by doing the following:

  • Limit the time you are exposed to silica

  • Wear a mask or other protective clothing when you work around silica dust

  • Use proper ventilation

  • Use wet methods to cut, chop and grind materials that contain silica

  • Swap materials that contain silica for materials that do not

  • Use respirators when working with materials that contain silica

  • Do not eat or drink near silica dust

  • Wash your hands and face before you eat if you have been around dust

  • Shower and change clothes immediately after work

  • Use collection or vacuum systems when available

  • Stay out of areas that contain silica dust, also beware of being downwind from these areas

Take Charge & Be Mindful of Silicosis Risks

When working with materials that contain silica dust, it is important to know your health risks as well as the risk to others. You should always be aware of the materials you are working with and ways to prevent the dust from spreading. Should you have any questions or concerns about the construction materials you are working with or what safety precautions you should be taking on a job site, ask your foreman for more clarification.

If you believe you have been overexposed to silica dust you should make an appointment with your health care provider and you should always get periodic medical exams if you continue to be exposed. Remember your health is important and to take care of yourself.

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