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Silica dust hazards and solutions

Recently there have been reports of new cases of Australian workers developing silicosis, a serious, irreversible lung disease. The disease is caused by prolonged exposure to respirable dust that contains crystalline silica. The disease causes loss of lung function, leading to shortness of breath and other serious consequences, such greater predisposition to heart disease and lung infections. Inhalation of respirable crystalline silica dust also poses an increased risk of lung cancer.

Which materials contain crystalline silica?

Crystalline silica is commonly present as quartz in rocks, sand and soil, so products containing any of these materials are likely to contain crystalline silica. Artificial stone (also referred to as engineered or reconstituted stone) generally contains a higher proportion of crystalline silica – typically over 90% – than other construction materials

To find out if a material contains crystalline silica check the product label and Safety Data Sheet (if available) or ask the manufacturer of the product.

How are workers exposed to crystalline silica?

Occupational exposures can occur where dust is generated and inhaled from materials such as sand, concrete, bricks, tiles, sandstone and other stone. However, the recent spike in the disease is reported to have occurred in some of the workers involved in stone benchtop manufacture, where dry cutting, grinding or polishing of artificial stone-based products can generate high levels of the dust.

How to protect workers

If you or your workers work with products that contain crystalline silica it is vital to seek and take note of the safety recommendations of the manufacturer of the product. It is extremely important to be aware of the potential for exposure to airborne dust and what to do to ensure workers are adequately protected.

Exposure to hazardous levels of dust can be reduced considerably by avoiding dry processes that generate airborne dust. Water suppression systems or ‘wet methods’ should be used to reduce airborne dust where possible. If wet methods are not practicable, use equipment with integral dust collection and/or use local exhaust ventilation. Never dry sweep or use compressed air – use a HEPA vacuum and/or wet wiping to collect surface dust.

Respiratory protection can be used to reduce inhalation of the dust if the above methods are not practicable, but it is not as effective as methods that prevent the dust becoming airborne in the first place. It is important to choose the right respirator for the job and to ensure it is fitted properly on the worker. A half-face respirator rated at P1 or P2 efficiency will give better protection than paper-type masks.

Further information

Most workplace health and safety authorities have released guidance and recommendations to ensure that workers are not exposed to dust levels exceeding the workplace occupational exposure standard (WES). The current WES is 0.5 mg/m3 which was recently halved from the previous WES of 0.1mg/m3..

To find out more go to your local health and safety authority’s website and search for ‘silica’.

HIA Safety has a team of qualified specialists who understand the residential building industry. Our team provides one-on-one tailored consultancy and can develop unique solutions to meet your business’s needs. This ensures that you can have the correct systems and processes in place to best protect your staff, PCBUs, subcontractors, clients and your business. 

To find out more, contact HIA’s Building Services team.

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