Safety with Silica


Date: May 18, 2020

Nancy Rigby, BITCO Home Office Technical Specialist, Risk Control

How to protect workers from risks 

With the weather warming up, the busy season has begun for many industries including construction, mining, fracking and more. Moving, drilling and cutting into materials such as concrete, sand, stone, brick and mortar are known to generate respirable crystalline silica. Silica is a mineral that is found in stone, soil and sand.

When materials containing crystalline silica are disturbed, they can release tiny, airborne particles-20 times smaller than a grain of salt which cause a health threat to anyone breathing the particles into their lungs. If you can see a cloud of dust in the air around your task, you are likely exposing yourself to hazardous levels of airborne silica.

Simply put: any job where dust is created by disturbing rock formations may create a substantial amount of respirable silica.

There are steps you must take to ensure your employees are safe when it comes to silica exposure, and some basic details to be aware of as you examine your safety procedures.

First, who is at risk?

Silica exposure safety concerns are relevant to many industrial workers. According to OSHA, inhaling silica remains a threat to nearly 2 million U.S. workers. The highest-risk jobs include blasting, fracking, stonecutting, rock drilling and construction.

Even workers downwind from someone cutting silica materials can be exposed. The exposure level can vary greatly being highly contingent upon the environment and material.

What happens if you’re exposed?

Exposure can lead to silicosis, COPD, lung cancer, kidney disease and death.

Silicosis can occur acutely as quickly as two months from extreme concentrations of crystalline silica to 20 years after chronic exposure, reducing the lung capacity making it difficult to breathe. Other symptoms include weakness and weight loss.

There is no cure for silicosis, which is why prevention is so important. 

How can exposures be reduced?

At BITCO, we recommend clients follow the OSHA hierarchy of controls.

  • Engineering controls, the most effective control involves using alternative processes where the dust isn’t created. This would include practices such as abrasive blasting with a medium of walnut shells instead of sand.
  • Administrative controls involve reducing or eliminating the exposure. Stopping its spread at the source is best, but not always available. The most widely used methods involve water integrated equipment and vacuum dust collectors. If these measures do not provide enough protection in the environment, adding respiratory protection is the next option.
  • Personal Protective Equipment effectiveness is subject to behavior, therefore considered the last line of defense – the bottom of the hierarchy of controls. Respirators have been found effective when combined with administrative controls. When respirators are required, employers have to put in place a written respiratory protection program in accordance with OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard.

How can you make sure your workplace is safe?

Ultimately, we’re responsible for providing a safe and healthy environment for our workers. That means having a written silica plan in place to control the hazards of silica.

At BITCO, our Risk Control Consultants are here for you.  We can help create safety plans and practices that help protect your workers.

We begin by asking questions about your unique environment, for example:

  • What is the task/material?
  • What tools are used?
  • What measures are taken to reduce exposure?
  • Who is responsible for enforcing safety practices?

Ready to get started on a plan of your own with one of our Risk Control Consultants? Speak with an agent today.

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For information purposes only. BITCO's blog content does not address all potential circumstances and is not a substitute for business, safety, or legal consultation.

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