How do I choose the right respirator and mask for working with silica?

Q:

How do I choose the right respirator and mask for working with silica?

A:

Silica is commonly found at construction sites. Workers are regularly exposed to silica in large quantities when they cut, drill, and grind silica-containing materials such as slate, concrete, and limestone. This silica is then released into the air where it can be inhaled by workers in the area. Inhaled silica poses a wide range of dangers to the human body, particularly to the respiratory system. In the long-term, inhaled silica can cause silicosis and lead to lung cancer, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Silicosis causes the build-up of scar tissue within an affected person’s lungs and, depending on the severity of the build-up, this can ultimately damage a person’s quality of life and even lead to death in severe cases.

The best way to prevent these devastating health impacts is to carefully follow all OSHA recommendations, including guidance on what respirators and masks to wear as protection. OSHA has set strict ceilings for the maximum amount of silica that a worker can be exposed to in every shift (stay up to date with The Who, What, and Why Behind the New Silica Standard). In industries in which levels of silica brush up against these maximum exposure levels, it is important for workers to wear masks (at lower exposure levels) and respirators (at higher exposure levels).

Oftentimes workers — particularly ones who have to pay for respirators and other safety equipment out of their own pocket — look for ways to cut corners on their gear, but this is never a good idea. Instead, workers should always wear equipment that has been certified. For respirators, the top-of-the-line certification is a N95 NIOSH respirator. It is important never to modify or alter this respirator from its factory state. In addition, if an employee is engaged in a significant amount of abrasive blasting—which generates larger than normal amounts of silica dust — it is important that they transition to a respirator that is Type CE abrasive-blast, supplied-air (learn more in 6 Factors to Consider When Choosing a Respiratory Protection Device).

In addition to recommendations on respirators, OSHA offers other suggestions. For example, OSHA urges workers to vacuum any excess dust from their clothing before leaving the work site or to change out of any contaminated clothes. Also, workers should be aware that they should not eat or drink any items when they are potentially exposed to silica.

In other words, it is important for workers — and ideally their employers — to carefully assess the amount of silica that they are regularly exposed to and take appropriate safety measures in response.

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