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What is it, what are its health risks, and how to prevent exposure to it?

 

Key takeaways…
1. Silica is a natural mineral found in some stone, rock, sand, brick, tiles, concrete, gravel and clay. Exposure is caused by breaking, crushing or milling this type of material.

2. Silicosis occurs when crystalline silica dust scars the lungs. It’s a serious and incurable disease, with symptoms including shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue and weight loss.

3. The occupations with the greatest exposure include: miners, stonemasons, construction workers, farmers and engineers.

4. Wearing respiratory protective equipment and/or local exhaust ventilation or wetting dust can reduce silica dust levels by 99%.

 

What is silica dust?
Crystalline silica is a natural mineral found in construction materials such as concrete, bricks, tiles, mortar and engineered stone. When these materials are worked on, silica dust is released. As its particles are 100 times smaller than ordinary sand, it poses a significant health hazard and could rival the impact of asbestos in the years to come.       

                     

 

Tasks and exposure
Approximately 600,000 Australian workers are exposed to silica dust in the workplace each year, and it’s been estimated that more than 10% of these will develop a form of lung cancer over the course of their life as a result of that exposure. 

 

Examples of work activities that can generate silica dust:

  • fabrication & installation of manufactured stone
  • excavation, earth moving & drilling plant operations
  • clay & stone processing
  • paving and surfacing
  • mining, quarrying & mineral ore treating processes
  • construction labouring activities
  • brick, concrete or stone cutting; especially using dry methods
  • abrasive blasting
  • foundry casting
  • angle grinding, jack hammering & chiselling of concrete or masonry
  • hydraulic fracturing of gas & oil wells
  • pottery making
  • tunnelling

“There is currently no available cure for silicosis, so the only way to stop the disease is via prevention”

Health Risks
Silica dust can be harmful when it’s inhaled into your lungs over a long period of time at low to moderate levels, or short periods at high levels. Exposure can lead to serious diseases, including:

  • chronic bronchitis
  • emphysema
  • silicosis (acute or accelerated)
  • lung cancer
  • kidney damage
  • scleroderma

“Using face respirators, exhaust ventilation and dust extraction units can reduce silica dust levels by 99%” 


Exposure Control

The good news is that there are some straightforward ways to protect you and your employees;

  • Wear a half-face respirator (min. P2 efficiency)
  • Wear work clothing that does not collect dust.
  • Use on-tool dust extraction units
  • Use on-tool water suppression units
  • Separate employees from the dust source
  • Use water respiratory protection
  • Clean dusty floors with vacuum or wet methods
  • Train employees on risks and effective control

 

More information about silica dust visit Safe Work Australia & Cancer Council Australia

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