5 ways to reduce silica dust exposure and prevent silicosis

Silicosis has become a growing health and safety concern for the industrial sector; however, knowing how to prevent silica dust exposure is a more complicated issue. To make understanding silicosis easier, we’ve done some research into silica dust and created this guide on how you can reduce exposure in your workplace.

What is silica?

Silica is a naturally occurring substance that can be found in varying amounts in sand, clay, gravel and some rocks and stones.

Also known as ‘quartz’, silica is commonly found on construction sites, due to its prevalence in building materials such as concrete, tiles, mortar and bricks.

Where does silica dust come from?

Carrying out common construction tasks such as grinding, drilling and cutting generates dust, which can easily be inhaled if the dust is fine enough.

Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) – also known as silica dust – can get deep into the lungs when breathed in, which, over time, can lead to lung cancer or other serious respiratory diseases.

What causes silicosis?

Dust inhalation affects thousands of workers – around 3,000 construction workers suffer from work-related breathing and lung problems per year*, losing businesses thousands in lost productivity. The HSE estimates that silica inhalation was responsible for the deaths of more than 500 construction workers in 2005.

It’s usually the result of heavy and prolonged exposure to RCS over the course of many years, although it is possible to develop acute silicosis more quickly if exposed to extremely high levels of dust.

What are the symptoms of silicosis?

Silicosis poses a high risk to workers. Its symptoms – which typically present as a persistent cough, shortness of breath and exhaustion – can take years to develop and may not occur until years after exposure or can gradually continue to worsen, potentially leading to fatal respiratory failure.

Unfortunately, silicosis can’t be cured as the lung damage is irreversible, but it can be managed – and, more importantly, it can be prevented.

How to reduce the risk of Silicosis and silica dust exposure

1. Wear suitable workwear in environments with risk of silica exposure

One of the most effective ways of minimising silica dust exposure is to provide your workers with personal protective equipment (PPE), such as respirators which cover the nose and mouth.

Disposable respirators only give minimal protection and need to be changed regularly, so you’ll need to assess the working environment to decide if they can adequately protect your workers from silica dust inhalation.

For more hazardous environments, half or full-face respirators offer a better degree of protection – but remember they need to be cleaned after every use.

2. Keep equipment clean in workplaces with high levels of silica

Contamination can be a major cause of concern in these environments. Workwear can be contaminated by silica dust – which, in some cases, is so fine that it can barely be seen – so it should always be washed separately.

There are specialist laundries that offer industrial cleaning services, to reduce the risk further. Additionally, any equipment used in areas with silica dust should be thoroughly cleaned after use and stored in a dust-free place.

3. Use engineered controls for dust suppression

Using local exhaust ventilation (LEV), which removes dust at its point of origin so that it doesn’t enter the air can be a very effective form of dust suppression, as can dust containment systems which continuously remove and filter the contaminated air.

4. Use wet methods when working in dust-heavy areas

Wet methods involve spraying water on an area before carrying out a task that generates a lot of dust, such as drilling. Wetting the surface before working on it suppresses the number of particles in the air and therefore workers’ exposure to silica dust.

5. Monitor dust levels

A dust monitoring system can monitor the air quality in the workplace, whilst also measuring the size and concentration of any airborne particles. This is one of the best preventative measures you can take to help reduce the risk of silicosis – constantly monitoring the air in real time allows you to easily spot any areas of concern.

Most dust monitors can only measure one particle size at a time, but the AIR XD Real-Time Dust Monitor uses advanced laser technology to monitor multiple sizes at once, adding an extra level of protection against both silica dust exposure and silicosis.

Reducing silica exposure in the workplace requires commitment, but if you’re interested in finding out how to protect your workers against the dangers of silica inhalation and reduce the risk of silicosis in your workplace, get in touch.

*Source – citb.co.uk