Silica Exposure More Than Just Breathing Dust

About 2 million construction workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica in over 600,000 workplaces. OSHA estimates that more than 840,000 of these workers are exposed to silica levels that exceed the new permissible exposure limit (PEL).

Exposure to respirable crystalline silica can cause kidney disease, silicosis, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. Here is some common construction equipment that can expose workers to dangerous levels of silica:

  • Masonry saws
  • Grinders
  • Drills
  • Jackhammers
  • Handheld powered chipping tools
  • Vehicle-mounted drilling rigs
  • Milling equipment
  • Crushing machines
  • Heavy demolition equipment

The construction standard does not apply in situations where exposures will remain low under any foreseeable conditions. This includes tasks such as mixing mortar, pouring concrete foundation walls and removing concrete formwork.

silica respirator

What Does the Silica Standard Require?

The standard requires that employers limit worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica and take other steps to protect workers.

The standard provides flexible alternatives, especially useful for small employers. Employers can either use a control method laid out in Table 1 of the construction standard, or they can measure worker exposure to silica and independently decide which dust controls work best to limit exposures to the PEL in their workplaces.

Regardless of which exposure control method is used, all construction employers covered by the standard are required to do the following:

  • Establish and implement a written exposure control plan that identifies tasks that involve exposure and methods used to protect workers, including procedures to restrict access to work areas where high exposures may occur
  • Designate a competent person to implement the written exposure control plan
  • Restrict housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica where feasible alternatives are available
  • Offer medical exams—including chest X-rays and lung function tests—every three years for workers who are required by the standard to wear a respirator for 30 or more days per year
  • Train workers on work operations that result in silica exposure as well as on ways to limit exposure
  • Keep records of workers’ silica exposure and medical exams

What is Table 1?

Table 1 matches common construction tasks with dust control methods, so employers know exactly what they need to do to limit worker exposure to silica. The dust control measures listed in the table include methods known to be effective, such as using water to keep dust from getting into the air or using ventilation to capture dust. In some operations, respirators may also be needed.

Employers who correctly follow Table 1 are not required to measure worker exposure to silica and are not subject to the PEL.

silica exposure

Table 1 Example: Handheld Power Saws

If workers are sawing silica-containing materials, they can use a saw with a built-in system that applies water to the saw blade. The water limits the amount of respirable crystalline silica that gets into the air.

In this example, if a worker uses the saw outdoors for four hours or less per day, no respirator would be needed. If a worker uses the saw for more than four hours per day or for any amount of time indoors, he or she would need to use a respirator with an assigned protection factor (APF) of at least 10. In this case, a NIOSH-certified filtering facepiece respirator that covers the nose and mouth (sometimes referred to as a dust mask) could be used. If a worker needs to use a respirator for 30 or more days a year, he or she would need to be offered a medical exam.

Alternate Exposure Control Methods

Employers who do not use control methods on Table 1 must do the following:

  • Measure the amount of silica that workers are exposed to if it may be at or above an action level of 25 micrograms of silica per cubic meter (μg/m3) of air, averaged over an eight-hour day
  • Protect workers from respirable crystalline silica exposures above the PEL of 50 μg/m3, averaged over an eight-hour day
  • Use dust control methods to protect workers from silica exposures above the PEL
  • Provide respirators to workers when dust controls cannot limit exposures to the PEL

For additional information on OSHA’s silica rule, go to www.osha.gov/silica.

Silica Exposure Precautions

Found in commonly used materials such as concrete, asphalt, coal dust and natural stone, silica particles can be inhaled when dust is created during handling.

Silica and construction

What’s a Little Dust?

Although silica looks like dust, it’s much more harmful to your lungs. Silica dust is a human lung carcinogen, and breathing it in causes the formation of scar tissue on the lungs, reducing the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen. Without proper protection, exposure poses a serious threat to workers. The most severe exposures to silica dust result from abrasive blasting, but those working on cement and brick construction sites are at a high risk as well.

Silica Safety Precautions

When working with silica, take the following precautions to protect yourself and others.

  • Use all available work practices—water sprays, ventilation systems and blasting cabinets—to control dust exposures.
  • If you’re working with a new material, check the label for silica. If silica is listed, refer to the product’s Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for more information.
  • Always wear proper personal protective equipment. When respirator protection is required, wear only a N100 NIOSH-certified respirator, or a Type CE abrasive-blast supplied-air respirator for abrasive blasting.
  • Make sure you are properly trained in the use and maintenance of your respirator. Contact your supervisor or other designated person if you need assistance or have any questions.
  • Don’t alter the respirator in any way.
  • Always inspect your respirator before use. Alert your supervisor and replace your respirator if you find a crack, puncture, tear, leak or any other unusual condition.
  • Shave facial hair when you’re going to be working in environments that require a respirator. Even a tight-fitting respirator will not create a good seal between the respirator and your face if you have a beard or mustache.
  • Wear disposable or washable work clothes and shower if facilities are available. Vacuum the dust from your clothes or change into clean clothing before leaving the worksite.
  • Be aware of the operations and job tasks creating silica exposures in your workplace environment and know how to protect yourself. Ask your supervisor if you have any questions.
  • Be aware of the health hazards related to crystalline silica exposure. Habits like smoking can add to lung damage caused by silica.
  • Don’t eat, drink, smoke or apply cosmetics in areas where silica dust is present. Wash your hands and face outside of dusty areas before performing any of these activities.

Take Extra Care

Remember, take extra care at all times when working with silica—a little dust now can cause big health problems later.

Silica safety

Helpful Tips for Staying Safe When Working with Silica

Although silica dust looks harmless and can be so fine that it is invisible to the naked eye, it is very harmful to your lungs. When small particles of silica dust enter the air that you breathe, it becomes trapped in your lungs. As the dust in your lungs builds up, it causes the formation of scar tissue on your lungs, reducing their ability to take in oxygen. Without proper protection, exposure poses a serious and potentially fatal health threat.

To minimize your risk of disease caused by silica inhalation, adhere to the following safety precautions while on the job.

  • Always wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as goggles, boots and a N95 NIOSH certified respirator.
  • Wear disposable or washable work clothes and shower immediately after working with materials containing silica. Vacuum or wash the dust from clothing before leaving work.
  • Participate in any health screenings that  offers.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke in areas where silica dust is present. Wash your hands and face before eating, drinking or smoking outside of the work area.

Not at Risk? Think Again!

Don’t think silica dust is harmful? Here’s what can happen down the road if you don’t take precautions today.

There are three stages of silicosis, the disease caused by silica inhalation.

Chronic/Classic Silicosis

  • Occurs after 15 to 20 years of moderate to low exposure. Initially, the symptoms may not be obvious, so the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) recommends that those who work around silica dust have a chest X-ray to determine if they have any lung damage. As the disease progresses, you may have shortness of breath when exercising. As the silicosis progresses, you may experience fatigue, extreme shortness of breath, chest pain and respiratory failure.

Accelerated Silicosis

  • Occurs after 5 to 10 years of high exposure. Symptoms include severe shortness of breath, weakness and weight loss.

Acute Silicosis

  • Occurs only a few months and up to two years following extremely high exposure. Symptoms include severe disabling shortness of breath, weakness and weight loss. This form of silicosis typically leads to death.
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