By Jim Sullivan, Senior Territory Manager, National Flooring Equipment
Caused by inhalation of silica dust on the job-site, Silicosis is a respiratory condition affecting up to 7,300 U.S. construction workers every year. Here are some ways to mitigate the dangers of silica dust.
Silicon dioxide or silica is a chemical compound found in materials that are used regularly in the construction industry, including sandstone, granite, brick and concrete. In the workplace, these materials create dust when they are cut, sanded and carved. The fine particle dust can be inhaled by construction workers, causing health problems, such as silicosis or bronchitis.
The quantity of silica contained in most materials can be estimated within 20%. Sandstone has silica content between 70- and 90%, while in tile, there is between 30- and 45% silicon dioxide present. However, in concrete, the silica content can be anywhere between 25- and 70%, so it is difficult to estimate what protection measures are necessary for each job.
Using the correct dust collecting equipment is the easiest way to mitigate the dangers of silica dust. From grinding concrete to surface polishing, workers need to be aware they will be creating silica dust, even if the particles are too small for the naked eye. Investing in a dust collector that attaches onto surface preparation equipment is the best way to keep silica dust enclosed and stop it from becoming airborne.
Vacuums and dust collectors with a one-filter system aren’t thorough enough to gather the finer particles that can pass through the respiratory system and cause health problems. When there is a risk of silica dust inhalation, look for a dust collector with an individually tested High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter and a high minimum efficiency.
The vacuum’s bagging system is also an extremely important component. If the silica dust becomes airborne when the user changes the vacuum bag, the work that the filters have done previously is wasted. Most top-of-the-range dust collectors will come equipped with a continuous bag, which can be cut from the machine and disposed of without being unsealed.
In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established rules limiting construction workers’ exposure to silica. Over an eight-hour shift, workers cannot be exposed to more than 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
The final rule on Occupational Exposure to Crystalline Silica in Construction, published on March 25, 2016, established a new Permissible Exposure Limit and contained several other ancillary provisions that apply to the construction industry. This rule became effective on June 23, 2016 and all obligations were to begin on June 23, 2017. However, it was delayed until September 23, 2017 to conduct additional outreach to the regulated community and to provide additional time to train compliance officers. OSHA is currently developing educational materials for employers and enforcement guidance.
Requirements for sample analysis in paragraph (d)(2)(v), are scheduled to commence on June 23, 2018.
Contractors, original equipment manufacturers and trade bodies must coordinate their efforts to mitigate the risks of silica dust by raising awareness about the dangers of breathing in small particles and by promoting best practice when working in environments with high silicone dioxide content. The industry needs to make workers aware of silica dust exposure dangers and use professional dust collectors correctly and at all times.