You may have heard about the dangers of silica dust. And that it causes a progressive, irreversible, untreatable and potentially fatal disease of the lungs called silicosis.
You may know that dry sandblasting, grinding, cutting, sanding, polishing, and drilling of silica-containing materials like concrete, rock, glass, asphalt, cement and particularly engineered stone are hazardous tasks in construction. Why? Because you create silica dust that is too small to settle. It floats around undetected in the air that is breathed in by you and those around you.
WorkSafe Victoria’s free “stonemans’ screening project” diagnosed 29% of engineered stone workers with silicosis in 2019/2020, and a similar campaign in 2021 in Queensland, Australia, diagnosed 20% of engineered stone workers with silicosis – some are young, and some are without symptoms as yet!
Tiny silica dust particles can penetrate your respirator if you aren’t careful. Make sure your respirator has been fit-tested and isn’t worn over a beard. You must also have the correct filters, as Silica dust is 100 times smaller than sand and can penetrate some filters.
Knowledge will empower you to make wise choices:
Damage to the lungs from silica dust and symptoms of disease may not appear for many years. Workers may not show any symptoms, even at the point of initial diagnosis, which is why prevention and health monitoring are critical. Often workers are diagnosed during routine health monitoring, as chest x-rays may show scar tissue formation even if you are without symptoms. Silicosis symptoms may include a dry cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, fever, chest pain and unexplained weight loss. Silicosis also increases your risk for other conditions like lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, kidney disease and some auto-immune diseases.
Tell your doctor about your current or previous exposure to silica dust. To rule out silicosis, respiratory questionnaires, lung function tests, chest X-rays and CT scans may be required.
Early detection of silicosis, before symptoms develop, can motivate you to stop further exposure, and thereby improve your health outcome.
If you were exposed to silica dust currently or in the past, even if you wore respirators and even if you have no symptoms, you need routine health monitoring. Talk to your employer. Tell your doctor about your exposure. Engineered stone workers must see specialist occupational health doctors. Early detection is most important!
Treatment is limited to relieving symptoms. For instance, oxygen therapy and bronchodilators will allow you to breathe more easily. Advanced silicosis requires lung transplants.
It is important to understand that depending on the State/Territory you are working in, there are very likely specific requirements you need to meet to ensure you are appropriately managing the risks. WorkSafe/SafeWork have plenty of information available to learn more. We have provided a few key links below for you: