It’s only a little dust – and a big hazard. Silica is a common material with many industrial uses. It can also contribute to several significant health problems. Employers must manage silica risk to keep their workers safe and healthy.
Understanding the Risk
Silica is a naturally occurring compound present in quartz and sand. It is used in concrete, bricks, glass, ceramics and other materials. However, the fact that something is natural, common and useful doesn’t make it safe.
Respirable silica refers to silica consisting of very small particles. These particles, which are 100 times small than regular sand particles, are small enough to be inhaled.
According to OSHA, workers may be exposed to respirable silica when performing a range of tasks, including:
- Blasting with sand
- Sawing brick or concrete
- Sanding or drilling into concrete
- Grinding mortar
- Manufacturing brick, concrete blocks, stone countertops or ceramics
- Cutting or crushing stone
It is estimated that 2.3 million people are exposed to silica while at work in the U.S. alone. This exposure can lead to a fatal an incurable lung disease called silicosis, as well as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease.
Managing the Risk
According to the CDC, employers can take several steps to control silica exposure:
- Eliminate tasks with exposure risk.
- Substitute non-silica material.
- Use engineering controls to reduce silica in the air, including water spray or local exhaust ventilation.
- Use administrative control to limit exposure.
- Provide personal protective equipment, including respirators.
To help keep workers safe from this known hazard, OSHA has a silica standard specifically for the construction industry, as well as a separate standard for other industries. Failure to comply with OSHA’s standard has consequences – Construction Dive reports that 116 citations were given in a six-month period.
Silica is a serious hazard, but the dangerous effects may not be seen immediately. Don’t wait until your workers start developing health problems. Take measures to manage silica risk now.