Silica Dust: What you need to know

Exposure to silica dust has been spotlighted as one of the major risks to workers in the construction industry. According to 1 NEWS, more than 100 enforcement actions have been taken against Kiwi businesses since alarms were raised in Australia, where there have been several deaths from silica dust.

What is silica dust?

Great question! Silica dust (crystalline silica) is found in some stone, rock, sand, gravel, and clay. You’ll mostly come across it in the following products:

  • Bricks
  • Engineered stone
  • Tiles
  • Concrete
  • Some plastic material

When these materials are worked on, a fine dust is released known as respirable crystalline silica or silica dust. And it’s this dust that is harmful when inhaled into your lungs.

How can workers be exposed to silica dust?

You may be exposed to silica dust if your work involves:

  • Construction
  • Kitchen benchtop manufacturing, finishing and fitting
  • Abrasive blasting
  • Manufacturing of concrete, bricks and tiles
  • Monumental masonry work
  • Concrete drilling, cutting, grinding, fettling, mixing, handling, dry shoveling, tunneling
  • Quarrying and roading
  • Foundries

Are there significant health risks?

Yes, and they can be serious if the right precautions aren’t taken. Silica dust is 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, you can be breathing it in without even knowing it.

Workers may develop a series of lung diseases from breathing in silica dust, including silicosis, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There is also some evidence that exposure to the dust may cause kidney disease.

What can be put in place on-site to mitigate the risks?

To follow health and safety laws, businesses should eliminate or minimise exposure to hazards by controlling the risks. For silica dust, this can be done in many ways:

Isolate work areas: Use physical barriers or computer numerical control (CNC) machines.
Look for dust control features: When buying equipment ensure dust-generating equipment has a dust collection system with a filtered air supply.
Use a H-class vacuum cleaner: Workers should not be using household vacuums to remove dust.
Set up exclusion zones: Mark the boundaries of work areas where dust is created. The signs should warn workers and specify the PPE to be used.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): PPE should not be the first or only control measure you consider but should be used. Seek expert advice when choosing it and consult with the worker who will be using it.
On-tool extraction: Use Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) that fits directly onto the hand-held machines. This is one of the most effective ways of controlling dust.
Water suppression: To be used when LEV is not suitable. Water should be used through non-electric tools to wet dust down at the point of dust generation. Also, make sure equipment and work areas are cleaned regularly with water.
Respiratory (breathing) protection: The type of respirator you choose will depend on the job and the levels of toxicity. Always choose a respirator that fully protects the worker and carry out fit testing so it is sealed tightly against the face.
Exposure and health monitoring: Provide health monitoring for all your workers who may be exposed to silica dust. You can engage with an occupational health practitioner at Habit Health – HazardCo customers even get a special discount.
Training: Health and safety starts with educating your workers. Provide them with information, training, and instruction on the control measures and the potential health impacts.

Remember employers are required to ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at their workplace, and have a duty to control the risks associated with the job.

At HazardCo, we’re all about education and equipping workers with the knowledge they need to get home safe at the end of the day. Educating everyone on-site about the danger and what we can do to reduce them creates a healthier worksite for everyone.

If you have any questions or want to know more about how to protect your team, get in touch today.