Silica is a naturally occurring substance that can be found in varying amounts in sand, clay, gravel and some rocks and stones. Also known as ‘quartz’, silica is commonly found on construction sites, due to its prevalence in building materials such as concrete, tiles, mortar and bricks.
Carrying out common construction tasks such as grinding, drilling and cutting generates dust, which can easily be inhaled if the dust is fine enough. Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) – also known as silica dust – can get deep into the lungs when breathed in, which, over time, can lead to lung cancer or other serious respiratory diseases.
Dust inhalation affects thousands of workers – around 3,000 construction workers suffer from work-related breathing and lung problems per year*, losing businesses thousands in lost productivity. The HSE estimates that silica inhalation was responsible for the deaths of more than 500 construction workers in 2005.
Silicosis poses a high risk to workers. Its symptoms – which typically present as a persistent cough, shortness of breath and exhaustion – can take years to develop and may not occur until years after exposure or can gradually continue to worsen, potentially leading to fatal respiratory failure.
It’s usually the result of heavy and prolonged exposure to RCS over the course of many years, although it is possible to develop acute silicosis more quickly if exposed to extremely high levels of dust. Unfortunately, silicosis can’t be cured as the lung damage is irreversible, but it can be managed – and, more importantly, it can be prevented.
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways that employers can reduce the risks of silica exposure…
- Wear suitable workwear – One of the most effective ways of minimising exposure is to provide your workers with personal protective equipment (PPE), such as respirators which cover the nose and mouth. Disposable respirators only give minimal protection and need to be changed regularly, so you’ll need to assess the working environment to decide if they can adequately protect your workers from silica inhalation. For more hazardous environments, half or full-face respirators offer a better degree of protection – but remember they need to be cleaned after every use.
- Keep equipment clean – In workplaces with high levels of silica, contamination can be a major concern. Workwear can be contaminated by silica dust – which, in some cases, is so fine that it can barely be seen – so it should always be washed separately. There are specialist laundries that offer industrial cleaning services, to reduce the risk further. Additionally, any equipment used in areas with silica dust should be thoroughly cleaned after use and stored in a dust-free place.
- Use engineered controls – Using local exhaust ventilation (LEV), which removes dust at its point of origin so that it doesn’t enter the air can be very effective, as can dust containment systems to continuously remove and filter the contaminated air.
- Use wet methods – These involve spraying water on an area before carrying out a task that generates a lot of dust, such as drilling, as it suppresses the number of particles in the air.
- Monitor the dust levels – A particulate measuring device can monitor the air quality in the workplace, also measuring the size and concentration of airborne particles. Most dust monitors can only measure one size at a time, but the AIR XD Real-Time Dust Monitor uses advanced laser technology to monitor multiple sizes at once, adding an extra level of protection.
Reducing silica exposure in the workplace requires commitment, but if you’re interested in finding out how to protect your workers against the dangers of silica inhalation, get in touch.
*Source – citb.co.uk