Recognizing the Hidden Dangers of Silica Dust

Plumes of visible dust can signal that respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is likely present, especially if restoration professionals are engaged in dust-generating activities. RCS is one of the most common and serious occupational hazards to workers’ health, and silicosis could be the next occupational lung disease crisis to affect Australia, according to Brian Murphy, Certified Occupational Hygienist (COH)® and managing director at EHS Assess. It is crucial that restoration professionals know how to recognize silica and adopt dust control measures to reduce exposure.

Murphy discussed how dust-generating activities can affect restorers’ health and the steps they should take to manage exposure in a session at the 2019 RIA Conference & Tradeshow in Queensland, Australia, “Silica Dust: The Hidden Dangers for the Restoration Industry.” According to Murphy, “Such activities are demolition, cutting of concrete and/or cutting of composite stone benchtops in particular. These can contain up to 90% RCS quartz, and control measures to manage the dust generated is a must. The best strategy is to adopt a hierarchy of controls and give thought to how activities are performed. Can the process be performed as a wet process? Can containment and local exhaust ventilation be installed?”

Restoration companies have specific duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (also see the U.S. OSHA fact sheets for construction and general industry) to manage health and safety risks when using, handling, generating and storing hazardous chemicals, including silica. “Employers also have a duty to ensure the workplace exposure standard for crystalline silica is not exceeded and to provide health monitoring to workers,” Murphy says. “Health monitoring is required if they carry out ongoing work using, handling, generating or storing crystalline silica, and there is a significant risk to workers’ health because of exposure.”

Although it is preferable to manage the issue at the source with engineering and process controls, Murphy notes that respiratory protection can be utilized as a secondary, lower order control. “The primary route of exposure for RCS is inhalation; therefore, a respirator with a particulate filter is required,” he says. “Where this is provided to workers, training and fit testing in its selection, use and maintenance is also required.”

Murphy says the feedback on his session at the RIA Conference & Tradeshow was very positive, especially as many attendees believed silica dust was an issue limited to the construction industry. Since the event, he has been asked to hold similar sessions for restoration firms and insurance companies.

“Silica is not a new occupational hazard in this or other industries,” Murphy says. “It has always been around and will continue to be. While it can be very hazardous, simple control strategies can reduce and manage worker/public exposure to it. The starting point is recognizing its presence and providing training/awareness to your teams on how to manage it.”

This article was shared in C&R with the permission of the Restoration Industry Association.

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