Silica Dust and how it affects your health

Dry sandblasting, grinding, cutting, sanding, polishing, and drilling of silica-containing materials like concrete, rock, glass, asphalt, cement and engineered stone are considered hazardous tasks in construction. This is because you create silica dust that is too small to settle that floats around undetected in the air that can be breathed in by you and those around you. 

Am I protected if I’m wearing a respirator? 

The 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. 

Prevention sounds like a better option! What steps can I take?

Step 1: Understand what happens when you inhale silica dust.

  •  Watch the two-minute video here
  • Thankfully your lungs have built-in traps that catch most impurities and dust. The nose, windpipe, and air tubes are lined with mucus membranes. Dust that was not sneezed out, sticks to the mucus and is coughed out, spat out, or swallowed.
  • But some respirable crystalline silica(RCS) dust escapes these traps and is tiny enough to enter the lungs where they cause irritation, inflammation, and scar tissue, even after silica dust exposure is stopped. 

Step 2: Know the silica content of your construction materials and substitute for less hazardous materials!

  • The higher the silica content of the material, the more silica dust is created. For instance, the extremely high silica content of engineered stone causes  “accelerated silicosis”
  • Stop exposure: the Australian Government is considering banning engineered stone and New Zealand may follow suit. Why wait for them to ban it? Ban it yourself!
  • Lessen exposure: substitute high-silica-content materials for no/low-silica-content materials. For instance, substitute engineered stone with wood or natural stone. 
  • Examples of the silica content of some of your construction materials:
  • Engineered stone: up to 92%
  • Fiber-cement sheeting: 5-40%. 
  • Concrete and slate: 20-40%.
  • Granite/natural stone: 25-60%.
  • Silica contents of products like cement can be found in their Safety Data Sheets (SDS).

Are there symptoms to look out for?

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 is 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. 

What if I’m experiencing some of these symptoms?

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.

Why is health monitoring important?

Early detection of silicosis, before symptoms develop, can motivate you to stop further exposure, and improve your health outcome.

How do I organise health monitoring?

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! 

More Information on how to protect yourself from the risk of inhaling silica dust:

It is important to understand that there are very likely specific requirements you need to meet to ensure you are appropriately managing the risks. WorkSafe has plenty of information available to learn more. We have provided a few key links below for you:

  • WorkSafe NZ
  • See here for a table of typical construction materials and their silica content.

You can also contact our friendly team if you have any questions.

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