Acute Silicosis

Last updated: April 4, 2019

What Does Acute Silicosis Mean?

Acute silicosis is an incurable lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, which is found in sand, rock, and various mineral ores (e.g., quartz). It is primarily caused by occupational exposure to silica, which occurs through mining and glass manufacturing industries, as well as foundry work, and it is recognized as the oldest known occupational disease.

Symptoms associated with the disease may occur within a few weeks to a few years of exposure, and they include fever, cough, weight loss, chest pain, and fatigue. In severe cases, the lungs become inflamed and fill with fluid, causing shortness of breath and low blood-oxygen levels.

Safeopedia Explains Acute Silicosis

Silicosis is a risk to any worker who might be exposed to crystalline silica, which occurs in any occupation that involves disturbing the earth’s crust. Specific occupations at risk include, but are not limited to, mining, construction, tunneling, masonry, sand blasting, glass and ceramics works, steel industry work, quarrying, and stone-cutting.

Silicosis is a significant source of occupational disease that is responsible for more than 100 deaths in the United States each year. Acute silicosis is a variant of silicosis that is associated with intense exposure to silica over a relatively short duration (months to years), as opposed to chronic silicosis, which involves prolonged exposure to smaller amounts and develops over decades. A third type of silicosis is accelerated silicosis. Patients with acute silicosis often experience respiratory failure within two years of the diagnosis.

OSHA and other occupational safety authorities enforce threshold limits on the amount of silica that workers may be exposed to during a given period. OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) is 50 µg/m3 averaged over an eight-hour workday, and worker exposure must be assessed at any level greater than 25 µg/m3. Exposure may be managed through the provision of respirators and other dust-management tools. Furthermore, workers must also be trained to understand the dangers of silica exposure and offer medical screening every three years.

The legal occupational exposure limits for silica exposure do not eliminate the risk of acute silicosis. In fact, when OSHA released its updated silica standard in 2018, it stated that the 50 µg/m3 exposure limit still allowed workers to face a significant risk of developing silicosis, but it was the lowest level that could reasonably be achieved by the industry. Medical experts view the most effective way of preventing silicosis as being through the use of ventilation, suppression, and isolation equipment that separates workers from exposure to silica dust, as the use of respiratory masks does not eliminate exposure.


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