Silica Dust Exposure

Silica dust exposure: What is it and what can you do about it?

You may have heard of ’silicosis’ before, but what is it and are you at risk? Silicosis is an occupational lung disease mainly caused by inhaling respirable crystalline silica dust.

In this blog we discuss what silica dust is, the risk factors around inhaling silica dust, work exposure and health surveillance programs.

What is silica dust?

Silica dust (crystalline silica) is a natural mineral that is found in some stone, rock, sand, gravel and clay. The most common form is quartz. Silica dust can also be found in building materials and other products including:

  • Engineered (artificial) stone
  • Bricks
  • Tiles
  • Drywall
  • Mortar
  • Concrete
  • Some plastic material

In their natural or unaltered state, these products are harmless. However when these materials are worked on, cut, crushed, drilled or damaged, silica is released as a fine dust known as respirable crystalline silica or silica dust. When this silica dust is breathed in, it may cause serious future medical problems, including silicosis (permanent lung scarring and stiffness).

The risks of silica dust

Inhaling silica dust can be damaging to your lungs as its tiny particles, measuring about 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, can go unnoticed while you breathe.

Exposure to silica dust poses severe health risks, including the potential development of lung cancer, silicosis, kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In Australia, around 230 people annually develop lung cancer due to prior exposure to silica dust in their workplaces.

Not all exposed workers will necessarily develop cancer – the risk increases with prolonged or repeated exposure to high levels of silica dust – but there is no safe level of exposure.

The truth about Silica Dust?

Up to 100 times smaller than a grain of sand and found in many construction materials, silica dust can be an invisible presence in the workplace.

If inhaled, silica dust can cause silicosis or lung cancer.

But you can protect yourself from harm if you follow proper safety precautions.

Find out more about workplace cancer risks here.

Work and exposure to silica dust

According to the Cancer Council of Australia, approximately 587,000 Australian workers were exposed to silica dust in their workplace over the course of 2011. It is estimated that 5758 of these will develop lung cancer, or one of the other health risks of silica dust, over the course of their life as a result of that exposure.

Today, work health and safety laws in Australia lay out employers’ duty of care for and workers' responsibilities to keep everybody safer in the workplace, but we still need to be aware of the risks of silica dust and how to mitigate them.

The occupations with the greatest exposure include miners, construction workers, farmers and engineers, though other occupations can also be at risk.

Your workers may be exposed to silica dust if your work involves:

  • breaking, crushing, grinding or milling material containing silica dust
  • sand blasting or casting
  • paving, surfacing or cement finishing
  • bricklaying
  • demolition work
  • road construction
  • stonemasonry
  • mineral ore-treating processes
  • manufacture of glass, ceramics, brick, concrete, tile, metals or machinery

If your workers encounter any of these activities in the course of their work, it’s your responsibility to have silica dust exposure testing processes in place to protect them from the risks associated with silica dust.

Keeping safe at work

All Australian workplaces must follow work health and safety laws. While the specifics of these laws vary between states and territories, the core principles remain the same.

  • Employers are required to ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at their workplace.
  • Employers have a duty to control the risks associated with work.
  • Workers must take reasonable care of their own health and safety, must not negatively affect the health and safety of other people and follow any reasonable instruction and workplace health and safety policies.

Air monitoring for silica dust

There is no safe level of silica dust exposure.

In Australia, the hard limit for silica dust exposure in Australia is 0.05mg/m3 averaged over an eight-hour day. However, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists has recommended this be limited to 0.025 mg/m3.

You must monitor your workers’ exposure to silica dust to be aware if there is a risk to their health. Air monitoring should be conducted by an independent, certified person.

Health surveillance

Health monitoring must be provided to workers who are continually working with silica dust and there is a significant risk to the worker's health

Crystalline silica health monitoring assessments

When it comes to crystalline silica health monitoring assessments, Assist Group can help. We provide crystalline silica health monitoring programs as well as individual silica medicals.

Generally speaking, if workers are exposed to any silica-based product, you should have a crystalline silica health monitoring program in place.

Find out more about our Crystalline Silica Health Monitoring Assessments

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