Often Overlooked: Silica Exposure in Construction

Anyone who has ever been on, or even near, a construction site knows that it can be very messy. This applies to large construction companies building a new skyscraper as well as to an individual handyman doing a bathroom remodel. While dirt and dust are to be expected in these areas, they should never be ignored. In many cases, a lot of the dust that covers the surfaces and is floating in the air is actually crystalline silica, which can cause long term damage to the throat and lungs.

Crystalline silica is one of the most often overlooked or ignored risks of working on, or even living near, a construction site. It has been well documented for nearly a century that prolonged, unprotected exposure to silica dust can cause a wide range of different health problems, including silicosis. Thousands of people each year are disabled from this exposure, and thousands more die from the diseases it causes.

Why is it Overlooked

With this being such a serious health risk, one might ask why the problem is so often overlooked. The fact is, the dust from silica appears very similar to many other types of dust that is often found on construction sites. In addition, breathing in small amounts of the silica won’t cause any immediate issues, so people assume it isn’t causing damage. The constant irritation it causes in the throat and lungs, however, can turn deadly.

In most states, there are not yet any legal requirements to limit the amount of crystalline silica that is in the air at a construction site. In addition, while respiratory protection is recommended, it is not required in most areas. This leads many employers, and the employees, to mistakenly think that the risk is far smaller than it actually is.

OSHA Taking Action

OSHA is working on putting some legal requirements and guidelines together regarding how employers must protect those on or around worksites where silica is present, but those requirements aren’t yet in place. While going through the process to get these requirements approved, they are also pushing a national emphasis program, which began in 2008. This program is focusing on educating employers and employees on the risks of silica, and how to stay safe.

This program, and the guidelines that are being worked on, will help to ensure employees are protected while working with silica. This typically starts by offering respiratory protection such as a filtered mask or even a self-contained oxygen supply for those working where the levels of crystallized silica will be high.

Another important strategy to limit the exposure of this dust is to keep it from getting up into the air. Depending on the type of equipment being used, it is often possible to contain the dust using vacuum systems, or ensuring the silica is wet while being cut. There are special drills and saw attachments available on the market today that can help to dramatically cut the amount of silica dust that escapes into the air.

According to OSHA.gov:

Transporting, moving, and refilling silica sand into and through sand movers, along transfer belts, and into blender hoppers can release dusts containing silica into the air. Workers can be exposed if they breathe the dust into their lungs.

www.osha.gov – Worker Exposure to Silica during Hydraulic Fracturing

A Non-Combustible Dust

Another reason that the risks of silica dust are often overlooked is because it is not a combustible dust. Combustible dusts have gotten a lot of attention over the past few years, because they can cause major explosions very quickly. They also significantly increase the risk of fire on any construction site. Due to these risks, OSHA and other regulatory agencies have put a lot of different safety materials and regulations together.

These combustible dusts are treated very carefully by job sites, not only because of the regulatory guidelines, but also because the risk is very immediate to the job site. Silica, on the other hand, poses very little immediate threat, so employers often overlook the risk rather than invest in protective equipment today.

Is Silica This Generation’s Asbestos?

When looking at the risks associated with silica, and the response it is getting from some employers and employees, one can’t help but think of how asbestos was treated in previous generations. Even after the risks were discovered, many people continued to work with the cancer causing materials, often without any significant protection. Today, the risks of silicosis, a variety of cancers and many other significant health problems is known to be caused by this dust, yet sufficient actions are not being taken.

Employers should look at the fact that while it may require some investments in equipment and personal protection gear today, it could save them from being sued in the future. Many organizations that did not take the threat of asbestos seriously in the past are now paying the high price in court. This is something that smart employers will keep in mind when looking at silica.

Risks for Individuals and Small Companies

While the major construction companies may not be taking the risk as seriously as they should, many of them are at least moving in the right direction. When it comes to individual contractors and small construction companies, however, there is often very little that is being done to protect themselves. Many of these one or two man operations aren’t even aware of the risks associated with silica. These people are focused on finding work and keeping their customers happy, not following the latest safety suggestions from OSHA.

In addition, they often don’t feel that they have the budget to invest in new equipment that can help to minimize the amount of dust that gets into the air, or for high quality respiratory protection gear. This leaves these individuals at significant risk for future medical problems. Since many of these individuals do most of their work in people’s homes, they may also be putting the health of the families at some risk by not keeping the silica dust properly contained. All contractors and small construction companies should be making an effort to stay up to date with all the latest safety suggestions from OSHA or other agencies.

Help Keep Everyone Safe

Anytime there is a known workplace hazard, it is everyone’s job to take action to keep people safe. There is a lot of documentation and other resources out there that can explain the risks associated with silica dust, so whether you’re a facility manager or part-time help in a small contractor’s company, it is important to share this type of information. In addition, its important to remind and communicate to employees to wear proper PPE to help protect from silica dust. This can be done by using safety signs or even vinyl safety labels. Informing people of these types of risks is an important first step in getting all types of employers to take these threats seriously.

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