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Crystalline Silica Dust Exposure Hazards Among Australian Workers

07/06/2022by minal.metkari0Read: 6 minutes
Crystalline Silica Dust Exposure Hazards Among Australian Workers

Crystalline silica dust exposure has been a cause of concern for Australian businesses owing to the workers’ health that succumbs to the dangerous effects of silica dust.

Silica is a natural resource found in abundance in the earth’s crust, stones, natural rock, etc. and forms an essential ingredient for manufacturing companies. As much as it is true that the mineral is beneficial, the dust generated is highly harmful to the Australian and global workers’ health and has been a cause of concern for years.

This article encapsulates information on crystalline silica, silica dust, its concentration, and the exposure hazards caused among Australian workers.

Crystalline Silica dust

Crystalline Silica dust is the residue generated from mechanical processes like cutting, crushing, grinding, drilling, polishing, or sawing natural stone. It also comprises manufactured products containing silica.

There are two types of silica crystalline and non-crystalline. The former is a common and dangerous form of silica, present in significant rocks and minerals. Quartz (CAS 14808-60-7) is the most crystalline form of silica.

The below chart provides details of silica dust concentration in various manufacturing work essentials:

Sr. No.MaterialAmount of crystalline silica (quartz)
1  Engineered stoneUp to 95 per cent
2 Sandstone70–90 per cent
3 Concrete, mortar25–70 per cent
4  BrickUp to 30 per cent
5  Granite 20–45 per cent
6Fibre cement sheets 10–30 per cent
7   Demolition dust3–4 per cent
8  Marble2 per cent

Respirable particles

The smallest dust particles of crystalline silica dust are called respirable particles. These are invisible to the human eye but can penetrate the lungs to cause irreversible damage.

Non-crystalline silica does not cause lung damage.

Work processes producing Silica dust

Below are the various manufacturing processes that produce crystalline silica dust:

  • Mining
  • Construction
  • Stone countertop
  • Oil and gas extraction
  • Foundries and other manufacturing setups
  • Dentistry
  • Glass cutting factory

Diseases caused by crystalline silica dust

Crystalline silica dust exposure is dangerous to workers’ health and leads to severe diseases like lung cancer, kidney failure, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and silicosis.

Lung cancer

Inhaling silica dust is very harmful to your lungs, and you might unknowingly be inhaling it as it is 100 times smaller than a grain of sand. Crystalline silica dust exposure can lead to lung cancer, and approximately 230 people develop this deadly disease each year because of past exposure. The risk of lung cancer increases with long-term or consistent high-level exposure to crystalline silica dust, but not all exposed workers will develop it.

Lung cancer causes abnormal growth of cells in one or both lungs. Workers with a smoking history are more prone to getting lung cancer.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disorder that causes inflammation and a choked flow of air through the lungs. Its symptoms are difficulty in breathing, mucus, cough, and wheezing.

Silicosis

Below are the different forms of silica and the various diseases caused by them:

Acute silicosis

Acute silicosis results from short exposure to high levels of silica dust, and it can contract a worker within a few weeks or years. This form of silicosis causes an overflow of protein into the lungs and severe inflammation.

Accelerated silicosis

Accelerated silicosis can develop after exposure to moderate and high levels of silica dust for 3 to 10 years. It causes inflammation, accumulation of protein in the lungs, and fibrotic nodules.

Chronic Silicosis

It is the most common form of silicosis developed after long-term exposure (20 years) to lower levels of silica dust. It causes swelling in the chest lymph node, lungs, and fibrotic nodules. People suffering from chronic silicosis will have

difficulty breathing and shortness of breath.

Progressive massive fibrosis

Progressive massive fibrosis causes the collection of the fibrotic nodules in the lung.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic Fibrosis is a disease that damages the lungs, digestive system and other organs of your body.

Scleroderma

Scleroderma is a long-term disease affecting your connective tissue, skin, and internal organs. Also called Systemic sclerosis, the disease results from excessive collagen

produced by the immune system thicken body parts. It leads to scar tissue formation in the skin, joints, lungs, kidneys, and other body organs.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

It is an auto-immune disease that causes swelling of joints and severe pain.

Chronic Kidney disease

Silica dust causes chronic kidney disease that reduces the functioning of the kidney and might require dialysis in severe cases. It can also lead to kidney failure if not treated in time.

Emphysema

It destroys lung tissues leading to its impairment.

Monitoring exposed workers’ health

Under the model WHS Regulations, PCBUs must provide health monitoring for workers if they are carrying out ongoing work using, handling, generating, or storing crystalline silica and if there is a significant risk to the worker’s health because of exposure. The primary focus of this health monitoring is to check the respiratory health of the workers.

Below given are the minimal health monitoring requirements for workers exposed to crystalline silica:

  • Collection of the occupational exposure, demographic, and medical history of crystalline silica exposure.
  • Chest X-Ray, standardised respiratory function tests like FEV1, FVC, and FEV1/FVC,
  • Lung function tests like lung volumes, spirometry, and lung diffusion capacity.

Crystalline silica dust regulations

The new regulations limit exposure to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (%u03BCg/m3) averaged over an 8-hour day.

OSHA regulation’s robust approach!

In the last few years, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) developed rigid, consistent and mandatory rules to protect workers from the dangerous effects of silica. These construction regulations consist of written exposure-control plans, training programs, and housekeeping. Since the construction industry format and other blue-collar industries generate

significant volumes of silica dust, OSHA regulations focus on containing it before workers inhale it. Businesses must imply dust shrouds and water suppression mechanisms for the same.

New Regulation mandates

In 2021, WorkSafe took 73 claims from workers who have developed a silica-related disease due to workplace silica exposure. Unfortunately, five people died of silica dust exposure.

As per the changes, enterprises working with silica must identify the seriousness of silica exposure hazards and document high-risk crystalline silica work. They must also check for the available risk control measures and keep a record of them.

The new duties took effect on 15 May and will affect and have an obligation on businesses in various industries, including quarrying, construction, and tunnelling.

Employers should provide safety training and instructions to workers. They must also guide the new job applicants engaging with high-risk crystalline silica processes.

Manufacturers and suppliers of crystalline silica products must provide a statement that outlines the percentage of crystalline silica. It must also include guided instructions to handle them and information on the exposure control mechanism safely.

Last November, the above changes were introduced by the law in the Occupational Health and Safety Amendment (Crystalline Silica) Regulations 2021.

These extended the ban on uncontrolled grinding, dry-cutting, and polishing of the engineered stone polishing.

As per the regulations, businesses working with engineered stone had 12 months to register for the Australian-first licensing scheme.

WorkSafe will also be inviting public opinion, and customer feedback on a proposed update to the ‘Managing exposure to crystalline silica: Engineered stone compliance code.’

Crystalline silica exposure limits Australia

Australia’s workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica dust must not exceed 0.05 mg/m3 (eight-hour time-weighted average).

Anything above 25 micrograms is called the ‘action level’, where it is essential to assess the work areas for potential health risks.

PCBUs should keep worker exposure to silica dust as low as reasonably practicable. Performing air monitoring at regular intervals to find out possible risks to workers’ health is necessary. Businesses must also check for uncertainties in the standard exposure maintenance.

Crystalline silica regulations

  • Organisations need to restrict housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica. Employers should guide them about alternatives that workers can use to prevent silica dust exposure.
  • Regular medical examinations, including lung function tests and chest X-rays for workers exposed to the OEL 30 days a year. Businesses must ensure these check-ups happen every three years.
  • Workers must be provided proper training while handling work that amounts to silica exposure and the best ways to limit exposure.
  • Health safety officials need to keep records of exposure measurements, objective data, and medical exams.
  • Workers must also indulge in learning about the harms of silica dust and take necessary precautions on a personal level.

Silica dust control measures

Below given are the silica dust control measures for employers to strictly imply to protect the health of employees from exposure to the dangers of silica:

1) Prevent workers from breathing silica dust

Uncontrolled dry processing of materials containing crystalline silica is prohibited. Silica dust must be captured or suppressed (usually with water) when cutting, grinding, sanding, polishing, drilling, and mixing crystalline silica materials.

2) Stop silica dust production

Silica dust production can be stopped entirely or prevented using a vacuum extraction tool that uses hand-held power tools. Businesses should rate the vacuum or dust extractor to work. For example, companies use an H-class vacuum extractor for stone benchtop fabrication and installation, the M or H-class for general construction, and H-class for other industries. Organisations must suppress dust on tools with water.

3) Stop workers breathing in silica dust

Businesses shall bring barriers that will isolate workers from exposure to dust-producing activities. They should use HEPA filtered air-conditioning systems in mobile and fixed operator cabins.

How would I know that I have a silica-related disease?

On suspecting any exposure to silica dust, immediately contact your physician. The physician will make tests mentioned earlier in the blog to determine if you have a silica-related disease.

How long does silica dust stay in the air?

Silica dust can stay in the air for about 12 days, and you won’t notice it due to its highly minute particle size.

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