Crystalline silica dust ranks among the most dangerous materials today’s workers are exposed to because it seems relatively harmless and may take years to impact their health. These tiny dust particles continue to cause debilitating lung conditions, reduce quality of life, and kill thousands of unsuspecting workers. Some have compared modern-day crystalline silica to asbestos.
Fortunately, the health hazards related to exposure to respirable crystalline silica are now well documented. Government agencies mandate PPE for silica dust in wide-reaching industries. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enhanced its silica dust standards and requires employers to make robust efforts to limit exposure. The new rules and increased awareness about long-term effects are likely to prompt employers to tighten safety protocols and increase PPE for silica dust protection.
What is Crystalline Silica?
Crystalline silica is a naturally occurring element in the earth’s crust that has been widely used in manufactured products and construction materials. Sometimes identified as “Respirable Crystalline Silica,” its tiny particles have been measured 100 times smaller than common beach sand. The health hazards related to over-exposure to respirable crystalline silica are prevalent when products and materials containing crystalline silica undergo cutting, drilling, grinding, or sandblasting, among others. It may come as a surprise to people in the construction and maritime sectors, but the sand used to remove paint from ship hulls and clear away debris on brick facades may include crystalline silica.
These tiny dust particles have been linked to conditions such as lung cancer and are classified as a carcinogen. Even a small amount of crystalline silica dust entering the lungs can reportedly cause a significant health issue. Silicosis ranks among the most dangerous and sometimes deadly diseases linked to inhaling the dust. It typically inhibits lung activity by forming scar tissue following high or prolonged exposure. This lung condition reduces the amount of oxygen the body takes in and remains incurable.
How Many Workers are Exposed to Crystalline Silica?
According to a report published by OSHA, approximately 2 million men and women in the maritime and construction trades come in contact with respirable crystalline silica annually. This figure applies to more than 600,000 workplaces. Upwards of 100,000 workers in construction and maritime settings get exposed to levels that exceed OSHA guidelines on “permissible exposure limits” (PEL). These include the following.
- Finished Carpentry: Workers often cut through materials such as countertops and other manufactured materials that contain crystalline silica, causing dust particles to linger in the air.
- Brick Manufacturing: The brick industry came under scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and OSHA concerning silica dust.
- Masonry Workers: Sawing through concrete slabs sends clouds of silica dust into the air. But tasks such as mixing mortar and demolition work also pose a health risk to masonry and labor crews.
- Fracking: Hydraulic fracturing used to stimulate oil and gas well production routinely exposes workers to levels of silica dust that exceed OSHA standards. Studies ranked the practice so risky that OSHA issued a hazard alert following a field study.
- Glass Manufacturing: Sand remains the primary component involved in glass manufacturing. That, in turn, makes silica the most prevalent raw material in glass-making workspaces.
- Shipbuilding: Although many companies backed away from utilizing materials with silica, it still presents a health danger. Grinding and sandblasting older ships routinely releases silica dust into the air.
It’s essential for workers to recognize dangers persist even when they do not directly interact with silica-laced materials. These particles are not necessarily identifiable by the naked eye and float indiscriminately throughout a confined work environment. Occupations one might consider less likely to cause silica dust health problems also include engine rebuilding, railroad track laying, boiler scaler, welding, soap-making, detergent production, and working in nuclear testing sites, among many others. The facts indicate that respirable crystalline silica poses a clear and present danger to worker health and safety across wide-reaching industries.
Health Hazards Related to Over Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica are Life-Threatening
Inhaling silica dust typically leads to a lung condition known as “Silicosis,” as well as inflicting damage on other organs. Everyday people inadvertently breathe in tiny silica particles that negatively impact the lungs and other organs. Over time, or in cases of intense exposure, the dust particles cause inflammation in the lungs. This event often results in nodules and scar tissue forming called “pulmonary fibrosis.”
Silicosis tends to go undiagnosed for long periods because it can take 10-30 years to severely impact a person. Many victims undergo advanced lung testing only after decreased oxygen levels and lung function affects daily life. No cure exists for this debilitating health condition or others linked to silica dust, such as the following.
- Lung Cancer: Similar to silicosis, lung cancers form after dust particles inflict tissue damage. The abnormal cells created by contact can “metastasize” to form cancer pockets. These cells can also travel to other organs, such as the kidneys. A reported 230 people develop lung cancer due to over-exposure to silica dust. The risk of suffering lung cancer increases in conjunction with long-term exposure.
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Agencies warn that exposure to silica dust can result in COPD. As an example, OSHA notes that COPD remains a primary health complication linked to exposure. This condition typically results in shortness of breath, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and only worsens over time.
- Kidney Disease: Studies indicate that people exposed to silica dust remain at increased risk of developing kidney disease and failure. Those working as abrasive blasters have seen heightened instances of kidney disease.
Inhaling the minuscule respirable crystalline silica particles can result in a wide range of chronic conditions. Lung-related diseases advance over time, resulting in people requiring oxygen tanks at home and machines to help them breathe. Silica dust has also been tied to autoimmune disorders and cardiovascular impairment. Because silicosis and other conditions can take years to manifest, they may go underreported as a cause of death. Thousands of silica dust-related conditions go undiagnosed each year.
What is OSHAs Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard & Advised Protections?
The growing pool of knowledge surround silica dust dangers prompted OSHA to take an expansive approach to worker safety. Guidelines now encompass tasks that might have been considered relatively low-risk years ago. But the fact that tiny silica particles go airborne and impact workers performing even short-term tasks, the standards now include the use of jackhammers, circular saws, and operating heavy equipment in many instances.
An increased number of workers are now required to wear PPE for silica dust protections such as respirators. According to OSHA standards, employers are mandated to take the following measures.
- Reduce worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica
- Measure exposure and implement appropriate safety controls
- Provide workers with dust-control assets such as water sources
- PPE for Silica Dust must include respirators
- Publish and implement a silica exposure plan that details risks and best practices
- Restrict access to workspaces for employees without PPE for silica dust
- Offer medical examinations that include chest x-rays
It’s also crucial for employers to determine the level of silica dust exposure during an 8-hour shift. According to OSHA, permissible exposure limits (PEL) stand at 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air during an 8-hour period. The PEL standard has been implemented across construction, manufacturing, maritime, and other industries.
What Are Ways to Mitigate Crystalline Silica Dust Exposure Risk?
Rules requiring employers to limit respirable crystalline silica exposure to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over 8 hours should be hailed as a health and safety win for workers. But meeting that standard requires workplaces to implement robust practices that keep a close eye on airborne dust. While wearing PPE for silica dust protection such as a certified respirator rank among the most determined efforts, these are other ways to reduce exposure:
- Use non-silica-based materials in the workplace.
- Deploy shrouds, dust-collection equipment, and ventilation in enclosed spaces.
- Use a HEPA-filtered vacuum to remove silica dust from areas.
- Ensure proper ventilation to clear away particles whenever possible.
- Prevent workers from eating, drinking, vaping, or smoking in or near areas with dust
- Require employees to wash their hands and face after coming into contact with silica dust
- Provide a complete inventory of disposable personal protective clothing to prevent skin contact.
- Mandate the ongoing use of certified respirators when performing tasks that result in airborne dust or when working in areas that may have silica dust that has settled on surfaces.
- Dust may seem relatively passive and harmless to uneducated workers. That’s why it’s critical to post warning signs and restrict workers from walking through potentially contaminated areas.
What Is Recommended PPE for Silica Dust Protection?
The key piece of PPE for silica dust revolves around providing a worker with a respirator that filters out particles. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) strongly advises companies to use a face piece with filters equal to or better than an N95 mask. This type of mask typically reduces concentrations to well below the OSHA regulations.
But beyond a breathing apparatus, workers must also protect themselves from skin and hair contact. One of the ways silica infiltrates the body involves transfers. Dust that settles on someone’s hands, forearms, hair, or unprotected clothing such as shoes, pants, and shirts, can make its way into their body. How likely is it for someone to touch their face, eyes, mouth, or shake out dust accumulation in their hair?
Employers and employees alike must take preventative measures such as measuring airborne dust, tamping it down with water, and remaining vigilant about PPE for silica dust. That’s why International Enviroguard produces a complete inventory of PPE for silica dust protection. Disposable personal protective clothing options such as International Enviroguard’s Body Filter 95+® and MicroGuard MP® clothing lines provide superior dust protection. Accessories for dust protection include disposable hoods and shoe covers. What’s more, we also offer surface protection, such as sticky mats, that help remove dust and other particles from the soles of shoes. This helps prevent the spread of harmful dust to other areas of a worksite or beyond. You can count on International Enviroguard for you dust protection needs.