It was late in my shift and we were running behind. We had set up a concrete cutter to put some contraction joints in for a parking garage. We got notice that a crew was coming to install some safety barriers. Instead of putting the work on hold, we were told to get the concrete cut before they got there. Some of us asked about all the dust that we were creating but our supervisor said that because we were working above ground, the wind would just blow the dust away. We had breathing masks but I remembered my training and I knew that it wouldn't be enough. I stopped work and called for a meeting.
Not all dust is the same. The dust from concrete and other stone-related materials pose a significant risk to workers' short- and long-term health. That dust contains silica, which is found in quartz, sand, and other materials used in construction and manufacturing.
When it is distributed, especially by cutting or drilling, the silica becomes respirable, meaning it can be breathed in. Inhaled silica can cause irritation and lesions in the lungs, leading to silicosis, lung cancer, and a range of other illnesses.
Two million U.S. workers are exposed to respirable silica, and about 300 die from it annually. Up to 30% of samples collected by OSHA exceed the permitted maximums.
Tips for Dealing with Silica
Authorities like OSHA and NIOSH have established Permissible Exposure Limits (PEL) for airborne particulates, including silica. They also provide rules regarding operating environments, protection measures, and hygiene habits.
When silica is present, crews must follow these steps:
- Make sure a representative performs routine and accurate air quality tests to certify that the presence of particulates in the air falls within the range of OSHA's PEL
- Place primary focus on ventilation and dust control, using vacuum systems, water sprays, and safely enclosed cutting and drilling areas (learn more in Construction Dust: The Risk to Health and How to Create a Safer Work Environment)
- As a secondary layer of protection, use full-face respirators wherever possible, or industry-approved masks
- Establish clear hygiene practices, including shower facilities, access to complete changes of clothes after shifts, and keeping food and drink consumption far away from dust-prone areas
Construction companies can prevent problems related to respirable silica by planning projects and pricing jobs to factor in the time and cost of adequate prevention. Staying current with OSHA regulations and standards is critical to ensuring compliance and your workers' continued safety.
Silica – More than a Nuisance
It's easy to overlook all the dust around you as a mere workplace inconvenience. Every construction site is dusty and dirty, so all that stuff being kicked up into the air just seems normal. But we're not built to breathe in powdered stone, and the effects of doing so can be devastating. Use proper ventilation and dust control wherever silica might be present, and back it up with respirators and good hygiene. An invisible danger is still a danger.