The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is taking proactive measures to protect workers against the effects of inhaling crystalline silica, a material that has drawn comparisons to deadly asbestos.

The minute crystalline silica particles are a common Earth material found in everyday things such as sand, concrete, and mortar, among others. It is a primary ingredient in manufacturing products such as ceramics, bricks, and even glass. The substance is so prevalent in industry that exposure is almost unavoidable.

When workers or those in close proximity inhale the airborne dust particles, health officials firmly believe it has devastating effects on health. In those ways, the similarities to asbestos appear obvious. But considering crystalline silica as a plague-like danger equivalent to asbestos requires more than a hotly trending health scare. That’s why employers are tasked with making informed decisions about the use of materials that could infuse the workplace with dust and unseen crystalline silica particles. And perhaps more importantly, what are industry leaders going to do about worker protections?

4 Things You Should Know About Asbestos

Asbestos is a term commonly used to identify six unique fibrous minerals that include Chrysotile, Tremolite, Crocidolite, Amosite, Actinolite, and Anthophyllite. Chrysotile remains the most prevalently used form of asbestos. It accounts for upwards of 95 percent of all asbestos use worldwide.  

These fibers are inherently resistant to heat and uncommonly strong. That’s why they were quickly integrated into construction materials, including insulation and fireproofing, among others. Unfortunately for millions who lost their lives as a result of coming into contact with asbestos, the science lagged far behind corporate profits and first-blush benefits. In terms of classifying crystalline silica as the new asbestos, these are key items workplace decision-makers may want to consider.

1: Asbestos Remains Legal in the United States

Despite the proven scientific link between contact and deadly diseases such as cancer, the asbestos industry won a decisive court battle in 1991 that upended the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandate to phase out the materials. The EPA crafted a rule that would have eliminated asbestos consistent with 60 other countries. The agency lost in federal court and asbestos, like crystalline silica, remains a regulated but legal material.

2: Asbestos Kills People on a Global Scale

Although the destructive health implications of asbestos are well known, the material is reportedly responsible for as many as 15,000 death in the U.S. annually, according to the CDC. Exposure continues to rank as the number one cause of death in the workplace, with a reported 90,000 lives lost each year worldwide. Fatalities have been classified into the following three groups by world health organizations.

  • Mesothelioma: This is a form of cancer that usually results in death after asbestos particles attack the lining of organs such as the lungs.
  • Asbestosis: This often deadly result of inhaling asbestos scars lung tissue that creates pain, inflammation, and ultimately suffocates victims.
  • Lung Cancers: Exposure to asbestos is considered a primary cause of a wide range of lung cancers.

As many as 125 million workers around the world and 1.3 million Americans are considered at risk of asbestos-related illnesses every day. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, according to OSHA.

3: Asbestos Continues to be Imported into the U.S.

Although federal agencies have issued stringent guidelines, approximately 750 metric tons of asbestos were reportedly imported into the U.S. in 2018. That figure more than doubled the amount imported in 2017 at 332 metric tons. However, 2018 imports of asbestos are considerably lower than the 2012 high of 1,610 metric tons.

4: Asbestos Has Not Been Abated from American Homes, Businesses

Congress and individual states have issued forceful health and safety guidelines regarding the removal and disposal of asbestos from existing homes and commercial buildings. An estimated 25 million U.S. homes may still have asbestos in the attic insulation, pipes, exterior shingles, roofing, and other construction materials. Simply put, asbestos continues to place American families at risk.

The widespread fear of asbestos exposure is certainly warranted. It seems perilously irresponsible for Congress to not ban asbestos imports and take proactive measures to eliminate it from the home and business building landscape. But the reality that asbestos is both deadly and present is a driving reason for industry leaders to take the necessary steps to address crystalline silica risks.

4 Things You Should Know About Crystalline Silica

Living in the age of click-bait media marketing and fake news, it’s difficult for industry leaders to know the difference between hoaxes and true facts. With that in mind, it’s essential to keep in mind that responsible agencies such as OSHA are developing worker health and safety rules regarding crystalline silica. In terms of these airborne dust particles being on equal footing with asbestos, consider the similarities of the following four essential facts about crystalline silica.

1: Silica Has Been Linked to Lung Disease

When workers inhale the sometimes microscopic crystalline silica particles, the abrasive dust scrapes and tears at the lining of the respiratory cavity. This process scars lung tissue and diminishes the victim's ability to breathe effectively. In many cases, lesions form on impacted lungs that have a suffocating effect. Beyond causing potentially fatal lung disease, crystalline silica has also been linked to peripheral health conditions such as kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and tuberculosis, among others. Cigarette smoking is said to exacerbate these issues.

2: Silica Remains Legal & Prevalent in the Workplace

It’s important to understand that asbestos was not even considered a potential health risk when mining began. The idea that a common and natural element culled from the Earth could cause such widespread death and devastation was almost counterintuitive. So it goes with crystalline silica as well.

In its inert form, crystalline silica is nothing more than common quartz, which is comprised of oxygen and silicon. These are not necessarily dangerous until they are inhaled. In that respect, crystalline silica and asbestos are not similar to a poisonous chemical. But when used for manufacturing and construction purposes, tiny particles are released into the air. This often occurs when construction materials such as stone, brick, and glass are cut and sanded using commercial tools such as saws, grinders, and others. Workers carrying these tasks and bystanders alike often unknowingly inhale the particles. Like asbestos, crystalline silica is a silent, insidious killer.

3: Crystalline Silica is a Growing Silent Workplace Killer

Crystalline silica is reportedly the second most prevalent material used in construction materials today. Although exposure and fatalities had been in decline in recent years, hazardous exposure is now being reported in popular industries such as stone countertop manufacturing, and oil and gas fracking processes, among others. According to the CDC, upwards of 2 million American workers may be exposed to crystalline silica in industries as diverse as road construction, sandblasting, and pottery making, among others. The health organization also warned that emerging occupations are increasing exposure risks.

4: OSHA Proposes Crystalline Silica Protection Rules

The growing concern over crystalline silica exposure has prompted the workplace safety oversight agency to propose updating its safety rules with new worker protections. OSHA is calling for one provision that would cover maritime environments, general industrial settings, as well as the construction sector. The underlying reasoning is that construction workers are at the highest risk because of routine tasks such as cutting and sanding cause hazardous particles to become airborne.

Existing permissible exposure limits were established in 1971, and many believe they inadequately address the rising crystalline silica health concerns. The outdated rules allow workers in industries such as construction and shipyards to be exposed to nearly double the levels of airborne particles as others. OSHA officials reportedly believe that reducing exposure and setting more consistent limits across sectors will save lives.

The health and safety agency reports that approximately 2.2 million American workers come in contact with airborne crystalline silica each year, and 1.85 are in the construction sector. An estimated 320,000 are employed in masonry and pottery making positions.

How To Protect Against Crystalline Silica Hazards

The new rule being promulgated by OSHA would limit exposure to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air over the course of an 8-hour workday. It would also mandate that employers use effective methods to reduce the exposure that includes education, training, and personal protective equipment to filter particles from entering the nose, mouth, and lungs.

Along with respirators, construction methods may be more heavily weighted to use wet cutting over dry, vacuuming, improved ventilation, and dust filtration systems, among others. Like asbestos exposure, the reduction of airborne crystalline silica is a primary defense against lung disease and fatalities. While crystalline silica may not yet be rightly classified alongside plague-like killers such as asbestos, terrifying similarities exist. A worker’s best defense is to utilize protective gear and air-filtering respirators whenever possible.