Silica, also known as quartz, is a commodity used in the making of steel to concrete, glass to rubber, microprocessors to plant soil and more. As workers handle and process these materials, they can create silica dust. This dust contains shards of crystalline silica particles. These nearly invisible particulates, when breathed in, can cause significant health issues.
Understanding Silica Dust Exposure
How Can One Be Exposed to It?
Because silica is used in a vast amount of industries, there are a number of different ways that a person can be exposed to silica dust. Silica dust is most prevalent in the moving of dry silica sand. As the silica moves through any system, the smallest particles get left behind become suspended in the air. The larger amount of silica dust in the air, the greater chance of exposure.
Common Places Where Exposure Happens
The common areas where exposure can occur include:
- Renovations and Construction. Jackhammers, concrete saws, sandblasters all cause considerable amount of silica dust when breaking up and removing concrete, ceramic tiles, bricks and other building materials.
- Transportation of Dry Silica. The transportation and transferring of dry silica from truck to tanks, conveyor belts to conveyor belts can cause a significant amount of silica dust.
- Furnaces. Workers who repair or replace furnaces and their components also run the risk of exposure to crystalline silica particles.
Silicosis and Other Diseases
What Is Silicosis?
Silicosis is a lung disease that can develop when someone breathes in dust containing silica particles. Inhaling the dust can lead to the formation of scar tissue or fibrosis in the lungs, which reduce the lungs’ ability to absorb and process oxygen.
As there is currently no permanent treatment for silicosis, prevention is critical.
What Are the Symptoms of Silicosis?
Silicosis generally occurs in stages after 15–20 years of exposure to silica particles.
Although early stages may have little to no symptoms, continued exposure can result in a noticeable shortness of breath, fever, and bluish coloring at the skin of the lips or ears. Silicosis also increases the risk of the affected person developing other lung diseases, including tuberculosis. As the condition progresses, fatigue starts to set in, along with appetite loss, chest pain, severe shortness of breath, and respiratory failure. Over time, these symptoms can result in death.
What Is Acute Silicosis?
Acute silicosis can occur within weeks or months of exposure to high levels of crystalline silica. Individuals with acute silicosis typically develop sudden symptoms such as fever, chest pains, and difficulty breathing. With high enough concentrations, the prognosis is fatal.
What Is Chronic Silicosis?
Chronic silicosis typically occurs after 10 or more years of exposure to low levels of crystalline silica. It can affect areas of the upper lungs, as well as causes extensive scarring and the above-mentioned symptoms.
What Are Other Diseases Related to Silica Exposure?
Other diseases associated with silica exposure include lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease.
Understanding Responsibilities and Addressing Silica Dust Exposure
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established a permissible exposure limit (PEL) that designates the maximum amount of airborne crystalline silica an employee can be exposed to during a work shift.
Understanding the Employer’s Responsibilities
To ensure that their employees’ exposure remains beneath this set limit, employers are obligated to supply and enforce the use of appropriate handling and safety equipment—such as water sprays, ventilation, and respirators—for dust containing crystalline silica particles. Employers may also offer safety training to their employees and health screenings to facilitate the prevention or early treatment of silicosis and other diseases related to silica dust.
Understanding the Employee’s Responsibilites
In addition to using the proper engineering controls and safety gear, employees can take a variety of other measures to limit their exposure to crystalline silica, such as:
- Participating in educational programs to learn about the dangers of crystalline silica
- Following appropriate health and safety protocols
- Utilizing employer-offered health and lung screenings
Addressing Silica Dust Exposure
When in confined spaces, using water spray systems and proper ventilation can limit exposure to silica dust. Using respirators that are specifically designed to protect against silica dust can further reduce the risk of employees breathing in harmful compounds.
Other actions an employee can take to help prevent the spreading of silica dust include thoroughly washing hands before eating or drinking in dusty areas and showering and changing into clean clothes prior to departing the workplace. The former helps keep any silica from spreading from person to person, and the latter prevents the silica from moving to different locations, such as one’s house or vehicle.
Top Five Ways to Minimize Silica Dust Exposure and Prevent Silicosis
The top five ways to minimize silica exposure and prevent the development of silicosis include:
- Learning about the common areas and applications where exposure to silica dust can occur and how to avoid them/work in them safely
- Using dust suppressants such as waters, oils and other liquids prevent crystalline silica dust from entering the air
- Using the proper safety and handling equipment, such as water sprays, ventilation, and respirators
- Following health and safety instructions given by your employer or medical professionals
- Washing before eating or drinking and showering and changing after work
- Utilizing any health and lung screenings offered by your employer
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