What Is Silicosis?

Silicosis is an incurable occupational disease caused by inhaling dust that contains minute pieces of a mineral called silica (SiO2).

Once inhaled, tiny silica dust particles settle deep into the lungs. There, they corrupt macrophages (white blood cells), which causes permanent scarring on the alveolus (an important area of the lungs) and affects the sufferer’s ability to breathe.

Exposure Factors

Silica is commonly contained in a variety of minerals, including sand, quartz, several types of ores, and other rocks. It typically poses little to no risk, unless it is released and made airborne by cutting, drilling, or grinding.

Whether silicosis develops and how quickly it does depends on a variety of factors, such as:

  • The concentration of crystalline silica in the dust inhaled
  • The amount of dust inhaled
  • The size and form of the silica
  • The worker profile, including their:
    • Age
    • Resistance level
    • Prior health conditions
    • Smoking habit

Everyday tasks that might put workers at risk of breathing in silica dust include:

  • Finishing drywall
  • Crushing, hauling, or chipping concrete or rock
  • Abrasive blasting
  • Using power tools to remove paint
  • Using silica powder as a polishing agent, paint extender, or abrasive

(Learn about Reducing Silica Exposure in Manufacturing.)

What Are the Symptoms of Silicosis?

The first signs of silicosis may be as simple as a cough, or a cough accompanied by phlegm, after weeks or years of exposure to silica dust.

As the disease becomes more acute, those affected may experience breathing difficulty, fever, and severe chest pain. Often symptoms similar to bronchitis-like wheezing and crackles from the lungs may occur. A chest x-ray will typically reveal the presence of small nodules in the upper lungs.

If unchecked, extensive scarring as a result of silicosis could result in chronic lung disease. Silicosis patients are also more susceptible to bronchitis, tuberculosis, lung cancer, and other lung diseases.

Smoking also compounds any lung damage.

The Three Classifications of Silicosis

Acute Silicosis

Symptoms will present as coughing, weight loss, and fatigue as a result of exposure to silica between a few weeks and a couple of years.

Lungs become inflamed, can fill with fluid, and result in low blood oxygen levels or shortness of breath

Chronic Silicosis

After more than ten years of exposure to silica dust, symptoms may include several upper lung issues including scarring, resulting in inflammation of the lungs and difficulties with breathing. This can range from a mild shortness of breath or labored breathing in the earlier stages to chest pain and even respiratory failure in more extreme cases.

Accelerated Silicosis

Includes similar symptoms to chronic silicosis, but occurs within ten years of exposure.

How Is Silicosis Treated?

The first course of treatment for silicosis is to take steps to prevent further exposure to the affected worker.

Symptoms can be reduced by using cough syrups, antibiotics, and corticosteroid inhalers or oxygen masks to open the airways.

Acute silicosis may require oral corticosteroids or whole-lung lavage with a saline solution to wash away the mineral dust from the lung itself.

In rare cases, medical professionals will consider a lung transplant.

Working with Silica Is Regulated

In the US, established guidelines regulate exposure limits to silica dust over a lifetime. Further, employers must provide workers that may be exposed to silica dust with the appropriate safety equipment and clothing.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends a medical checkup for those working with silica dust every three years.

(Learn more about Detecting, Sampling, and Measuring Silica on Your Job Site.)

How Can Silicosis Be Prevented?

Because there s no cure for the disease itself, prevention through exposure control is the best measure to combat silicosis. Here are some best practices:

  • Minimize the use of hazardous materials that contain silica, including the use of substitute materials whenever possible
  • Inform workers that crystalline silica dust is not always visible
  • Develop systems and controls to guide workplace design, equipment selection, and modifications
  • Ensure proper ventilation and implement water spray systems and wet cutting methods
  • Provide proper safety equipment, including clothing, face protection, and respiratory protection
  • Provide clean washing facilities and implement proper hygiene practices, including the removal of exposed clothing when entering other areas of the workplace, getting into a vehicle, and before workers go home
  • Offer health education and workplace training to ensure that workers are aware of the risks and measures needed to reduce exposure to silica
  • Implement a medical surveillance program that offers both pre-employment and periodic medical check-ups and clinical examinations

Moving Forward with Silicosis

The development of early detection techniques, medications, and new treatment methods have improved the quality of life and survival rates for those afflicted. Living with silicosis requires patients to pay close attention to their health, monitor their weight, quit smoking, and to maintain an active lifestyle.

In 2013, there were 46,000 deaths worldwide as a result of silicosis. It is critical that all workers who have the potential to be exposed to silica in the workplace have regular checkups and diligently watch for any symptoms like breathing difficulty or coughing.