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Hazard Related Topics

What is Silicosis?

Silicosis is a serious lung condition caused by the inhalation of dust containing silica. Silicosis makes breathing difficult and the risk of lung infections increases. Silicosis usually follows exposure to silica over many years, but extremely high exposures can lead to rapid ill health.

What is Silica?

Silica is a natural substance. It is found in most rocks, sand and clay and in products such as bricks and concrete. Silica is also used as filler in some plastic products. These materials create dust when they are cut, sanded, carved etc. This dust may be fine enough to enter your lungs. The fine dust is called respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and can be hard to see in normal lighting.

Where will I find Silica?

Silica is used in a large number of industries;

  • construction and demolition processes - concrete, stone, brick, mortar;
  • quarrying;
  • slate mining and slate processing;
  • potteries, ceramics, ceramic glaze manufacture, brick and tile manufacture;
  • foundries;
  • refractory production and cutting;
  • concrete product manufacture;
  • manufacture of monuments, architectural masonry, stone fireplaces and kitchen worktops;
  • grit and abrasive blasting, particularly on sandstone.

(HSE, 2014)

What activities can create silica dust?

Within the above industries, certain activities create silica dust including;

  • grinding, drilling, cutting, sanding, chiselling, blasting;
  • polishing, conveying;
  • fettling;
  • mixing and handling, shovelling dry material;
  • rock drilling/breaking/crushing/screening.

(HSE, 2014)

How do I actually breathe it in - I am really careful at work?

Silica is such a fine dust that it is sometime hard to see it in normal lighting and even to the naked eye. You can be really careful at work but there are elements that might have been overlooked. Here are some top tips;

  • Make sure you have a good spillage and leaks procedure. Spillages and Leaks can cause a build-up of silica dust and when disturbed can expose you and other people to an unnecessarily high risk.
  • Ensure your organisation has a good cleaning protocol. Silica will need to be cleaned up using "wet cleaning" or a dedicated vacuum cleaner. Dry cleaning (ie. Sweeping) and compressed air will send the dust elsewhere thus increasing the risk to others - this is not recommended.
  • Some organisations will use a dust extractor - make sure it is always used, maintained and working properly.
  • Clothes can also become contaminated and it would be wise for your organisation to ensure that no employees wear their working clothes home.
  • The dust can remain in the air so Protective Equipment like respirators will be necessary to stop individual, continuous inhalation.

What should my employer be doing?

Employers - like employees - have certain obligations when it comes to Health and Safety;

  • Have conducted a thorough risk assessment and have kept a written record (mandatory if more than 5 employees).
  • Share the risk assessment with you - especially if there is anything significant to report.
  • Where possible, try and substitute a high silica content product with a lower silica content product.
  • Prevent and control exposure to silica. More details here.
  • Maintain equipment.
  • Provide training about the health risks and equipment used to protect employees.
  • Monitor levels of silica in the air where appropriate.
  • Providing a health surveillance program where appropriate.

What should you do?

It is really important for you to understand what your obligations are and to do them.

You should:

  • ask if the material you are using, or dust from the work you are doing, contains silica;
  • ask how the job should be done safely, without creating risks to your health;
  • follow all safe working procedures, including cleaning procedure;
  • use controls such as dust extraction as you were trained to do;
  • wear protective clothing properly.

If you have to wear a respirator, make sure that:

  • you are wearing the right type of respirator for the job;
  • you have a face-fit test for a tight-fitting respirator, to ensure it fits properly -
  • you need to be clean shaven for this tight fit type of respirator to work effectively;
  • you have been trained to use, check and clean the respirator;
  • the filters or disposable respirators are changed regularly;
  • the equipment is stored in a clean, dust-free place;
  • you tell your supervisor or employer if you find any defects, or your respirator does not fit, is dirty or its filter is old - your employer must put it right.

Do not:

  • dry sweep - use vacuum or wet cleaning;
  • Use compressed air for removing dust from clothing.

If the controls to protect you from dust exposure include dust extraction (local exhaust ventilation (LEV)) or other engineering control equipment, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Were you involved in the design and selection of control equipment - the way you work may need to change to maximise the protection you get?
  • Are the proposed changes workable - if they are not you could suggest alternatives; the way you work may need to change to maximise the protection you get?
  • Have you been trained in how the control equipment works - you need to know how to use it effectively, your employer, the equipment supplier or some other competent person should do this?
  • Can you tell if the control equipment is not working effectively - you should be trained to recognise the signs, eg dust extraction equipment should have an airflow indicator to show that it is working properly?
  • Is the control equipment easy to use properly - if it forces you to work in an awkward way or prevents you doing the task

(HSE, 2014)