The Dangers of Silica Inhalation


     It takes just a very small amount of inhalation of crystalline silica particles to cause serious problems to plant workers. Initial symptoms include but are not limited to shortness of breath, weakness and weight loss. Many  cases of Silicosis can be shown to eventually lead to lung cancer, pulmonary and kidney disease.  Crystalline silica is found in virtually every type of industrial environments. The largest areas of exposures are caused by the everyday factory operations such as abrasive blasting, cement and brick manufacturing, asphalt pavement manufacturing, china and ceramic manufacturing and the tool and die industries. In addition, the manufacturing of adhesives, paints, soaps and glass are made with crystalline silica.

     OSHA has established a “Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL). This is the maximum amount of crystalline silica that employees may be exposed during an 8 hour work shift. There is also a requirement for all employees who may be exposed to crystalline silica to undergo hazard communication training. Furthermore, a “Respirator Protection Program” must be in place unless and until engineering controls have been installed.  

     Currently employers are replacing crystalline silica whenever possible. Employers are providing N95 NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) certified respirators. Employees are encouraged to wear disposable or washable clothes and to shower at the facility prior to leaving. Work clothes should be vacuumed prior to washing to remove as much as dust as possible. And anyone working with crystalline silica should not eat, drink, smoke or apply cosmetics. The dust can easily get on food or anything that a person’s skin can absorb or anything that can be swallowed. Smoking is of particular concern. It can only add on to any damage already caused by crystalline silica exposure.  It is so important that these rules and regulation be followed. Acute silicosis may occur in as little as a few months and even up to 2 years following exposure.

     There are several ways  to help reduce the amount of crystalline silica dust  in the air.  Applying  water to the saw blade, grinding or drilling device during operation significantly reduces dust buildup. The use of commercially available local exhaust ventilation system (LEV) is very effective in reducing airborne dust concentrations. Both methods have some drawbacks, water can cause slip hazards and possible water damage to the equipment. LEV systems add weight to the equipment and raise electrical costs. However it is better to deal with these problems and keep them under control then not using them and dealing with the enormous health hazards if water and air filtration were not used.

     OSHA has given notice of a proposed rule for Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica. It is available in print from the Federal Register, document 2013-20997. You can read it online at https://federalregister.gov/a/201320997.

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