Protecting Construction Workers Against Silica Exposure

Workers in a number of construction occupations are exposed to crystalline silica. Breathing too much of this dangerous dust can lead to serious lung damage, resulting in long-term illness or even death.

Workers in cement, concrete or stucco operations, abrasive blasting, jack hammering, rock and well drilling, brick and block cutting, and tunneling operations are often exposed to crystalline silica. Any dust-producing operations should follow industry safety standards as well as OSHA regulations to protect workers.

Here’s where to start:

What happens when exposure occurs

When inhaled into the lungs, crystalline silica dust creates scarring or fibrotic nodules around the silica particles and may result in silicosis.

Silicosis may result in breathing difficulty, tuberculosis — and possibly death. Exposure ranges from cumulative (over many years of exposure) to acute (exposure to high concentrations of contaminated air in short periods).

Acute silicosis is identifiable by fever, shortness of breath, and cyanosis, or bluish-colored skin. Silicosis is incurable and may be progressive even after dust exposure has ceased.

Harmful silica particles, as small as 1/100th the size of a grain of sand, are impossible to detect by sight or smell. They can only be measured using air-sampling equipment. In comparison, a human hair is 70 microns, and the silica dust we are concerned with is as small as 10 microns.

Protections

There are a number of steps you can take to protect your workers. Most of these should be used in conjunction with each other:

  • Engineering controls — mechanical ventilation for removal of contaminated air.

  • Replace crystalline silica materials with safer substitutes whenever possible.

  • Require workers to wear NIOSH-approved respirators.

  • Practice wet-dust suppression measures like water sprays to wet the material so that it generates less dust.

  • Isolation/enclosure/ventilation of dusty processes.

  • Use handheld grinders with a shroud and vacuum.

  • Use wet grinding/cutting methods.

  • Wear aprons or coveralls and disposable clothing.

  • Combine the use of more than one control measure.

  • Conduct environmental monitoring.

  • Educate and train workers and supervisors.

Good housekeeping is an essential part of workplace safety, and reducing exposure to silica dust is no exception. Consider employing the following housekeeping measures:

  • Minimize your dry sweeping of the work area.

  • Use vacuum cleaners to collect dust on a daily basis.

  • Wet down the area prior to clean-up.

  • Never use an air supply to blow dust off work clothing. Air pressure causes silica dust to become airborne.

  • Remove dust-contaminated clothing at the worksite to minimize transportation and relocation of the dust.

Silica dust will have long-term effects on the health of your employees, so preventing exposure is an issue that requires significant attention. Be sure to minimize the possibility of exposure by following OSHA’S Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for Construction and implementing robust protective measures.

Silica-containing material

The materials listed below contain silica which can be released through cutting, breaking and grinding, among other work:

  • Asphalt

  • Brick

  • Cement

  • Concrete

  • Concrete block

  • Drywall

  • Fiber cement products

  • Grout

  • Gunite/Shotcrete

  • Mortar

  • Paints containing silica

  • Plaster

  • Refractory mortar/castables

  • Refractory units

  • Rock

  • Roof tile (concrete)

  • SandSoil (fill dirt and top soil)

  • Stone (including granite, limestone, quartzite, sandstone, shale, slate, cultured)

  • Stucco/EIFS

  • Terrazzo

  • Tile (clay and ceramic)

Additionally, under OSHA regulations, all employers whose workers encounter inhalable silica exposure should prepare the following documents:

  • A written Silica Exposure Mitigation Plan.

  • Documentation of compliance with Table 1 of the Silica standard.

  • Documentation of regular exposure measurement.

  • A hazard communication and training program.

OSHA has a handy guide for employers whose workers may be exposed to silica dust in the workplace. You can find it here.

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