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What is Silica? Everything You Need to Know

Whether you work in construction, demolition or other manual building work, you likely put yourself at risk every day.  However, it is not only power tools and trip hazards you need to be careful around.  Some of the most common materials Australians work with can result in being extremely hazardous.  But why is this?

Silica is one of the most harmful minerals workers commonly use.  But what exactly is it, and why is it so hazardous?  What can you do to protect your workforce against it?

In this guide, we will look at silica in close detail.  We will also help you understand what to do when working with the material regularly.  From appropriate safety signs to on-tool suction, you must take steps to protect your team from hazardous dust. 

What is Silica?

Silica is a crystalline mineral commonly found in many building materials.  These can include concrete, engineered stone, marble, shale, granite, tiles, bricks, mortar, sandstone and quartz.

Silica is minute, therefore, when working with any of the above materials, it is unlikely you will see its particles during sawing or drilling.  This, unfortunately, only helps to make it more dangerous.

Material such as engineered stone grinds into fine powders and dust.  You may have worked with such material before and protected yourself with masks and suction.  However, silica dust requires a level of caution, as it is potentially lethal to breathe in.

In Which Environments Can You Normally Find Silica?

As you can find crystalline silica in a variety of materials, it is rife in many building projects.  You are likely to work with silica if you build or manufacture kitchen and bathroom facilities.  Alternatively, regularly working with concrete, mortar and cement will put you at direct risk. 

Therefore, it is safe to assume most building sites will be at risk of silica dispersal at one point or another.  It's essential to know what to do to prevent wide dust dispersal and to warn others how to prepare for it.  But what can silica do to you if you breathe it in?

construction workers

Why is Silica Hazardous?

Silica is hazardous mainly due to the size of its particles.  When you saw, cut or drill into silica, its dust will carry millions of tiny pieces that you can easily breathe in.

Chronic inhalation of silica can lead to a condition known as silicosis.  Silicosis occurs when particles of silica are breathed in and settle in your lungs.  Over time, these particles can kill lung cells, causing widespread necrosis. 

In the long term, this can lead to severe breathing problems through internal scarring, and in some cases, it can only take a few weeks to develop.

Silicosis has three main forms, which fall depending on how often you breathe in dust.  Chronic silicosis can occur up to 30 years after breathing it in, for example.  That can cause intensive lung problems later in life.

Acute silicosis, meanwhile, won’t take as long to develop.  This can cause a variety of bodily complaints, as can accelerated silicosis.  Accelerated silicosis occurs typically within a decade of exposure.  In any case, silicosis can be extremely painful and debilitating.

What Are the Symptoms of Silicosis?

Silicosis can sometimes be challenging to diagnose in the short term.  However, severe coughing, breathing problems and even weight loss can all be signs of silica inhalation.

In the long run, acute silicosis can also cause severe chest pains and even fevers.  Silicosis is, therefore, one of the most dangerous occupational diseases.  It can also act as a gateway to other bodily dysfunctions, particularly in those with weak immune systems.  In some cases, silicosis can even be fatal.

Silicosis can kill, mostly thanks to its effects on the lungs.  Internal scarring of your lungs, as well as cell necrosis, can lead to an increase of internal fluid.
 

It is a disease which is completely preventable!  However, hundreds of people die from the disease each year worldwide.  As a result, Australian businesses and lawmakers take clear steps to control dust dispersal. 

doctors

Who is Most at Risk from Silica?

People who are most likely to breathe in silica dust are those who work with everyday building materials.  Natural and engineered stone is likely to carry a lot of silica particles, which can turn into dust.

Notably, stonemasons and those working in bathroom and kitchen manufacture are likely most at risk.  However, any teams working with building materials such as concrete and brick should take precautions.

Silica inhalation is something that many may not know too much about.  Those who know a little about inhaling dust may wear masks or use specific tools to cut down on dispersal.  However, you must make sure your whole team understands the risks involved.  Masks often aren’t enough to protect against breathing in.

You must also think carefully about the public.  If you run a building site or construction zone likely to work with silica products, careful warning signs are a must.  The general public must, as a rule, stay clear of building sites for obvious reasons!

Is Silica as Dangerous as Asbestos?

It's impossible to compare the two.  Asbestos is another material which, when inhaled, can cause severe damage to your long-term health.  However, there's a lot of misinformation over which is 'more dangerous' between asbestos and silica.

Essentially, both are incredibly hazardous.  While asbestos control is tighter than ever before, many Australian workers are at risk of encountering it.  However, many more workers are at risk of breathing in silica because they simply don’t protect themselves enough.

Some parties see silica as the 'new asbestos'.  This is likely because awareness of the mineral is growing.  However, despite Australian laws working to increase protection, many businesses aren't doing enough to safeguard.

How Can You Protect Against Silica Exposure?

There are many ways you can prevent the spread of silica dust.  One of the best ways to warn your team, and members of the public, is to use appropriate signage.  For example, you could set up signs to encourage people to use safety tools and protective wear.  For the public, you should warn them to avoid areas altogether! 

danger sign silica dust

Wet sweeping is one of the best ways to prevent dust from entering the air.  When you dry sweep an area for dust, you release it into the atmosphere.

However, you can also use specialist tools and equipment.  It's always a good idea, for example, to use respiratory protective equipment or RPEs.  RPEs work harder to prevent dust from reaching your lungs than simple face masks.

You may also wish to use an H-Class dust extractor.  H-Class refers to particle size – and silica falls under the smallest category.  Therefore, H-Class vacuums will constantly suck up and remove microscopic particles from the atmosphere.  You’ll even find some power tools with extractors as attachments.  This means that, as soon as you create dust, it’s sucked up and removed.

You should also consider tools and extractors which use HEPA filters.  This type of filter system will work to clear the air of any harmful particles or fragments.

Some power tools also have water delivery systems attached.  This is a safe way to ensure that dust glues together.  Therefore, it has no risk of floating into the air.

Above all, you should educate your team!  Silicosis is easy to prevent.  However, many people are never even aware they are breathing in silica.  Therefore, it’s essential to take preventive steps before it’s too late.

What Do Australian Laws Say About Silica?

Statistics show that, in 2011, around 587,000 workers in the country may have breathed in silica dust.  Pressure, therefore, is mounting on workplaces to take greater care of their employees. 

Regional Australian lawmakers are working to protect those at risk.  However, changes in regional laws only came about very recently.  Queensland and Victoria have brought in regulation programs, and in some cases, dry cutting is banned altogether!

New South Wales, Western and South Australia are also taking steps to protect workers.  In Tasmania, laws also follow those bans and regulations set in Queensland.

Rising workplace claims and terminal illness are forcing regional lawmakers to bring in changes.  This is great news for everyday workers, as it means firms will have no excuse but to pay attention to risks.

Conclusion

Silicosis statistics can make for frightening reading.  However, there are plenty of simple ways that firms, and workers, can fight back against hazardous dust.  While regional laws are taking time to catch up, small teams and individuals can start taking steps to protect their long-term health.

Above all, workplace protection is vital.  Danger signs are just one asset in the fight against silica dust!  Do make sure to read more of our resources on workplace safety for further advice.  Alternatively, call us on 1300 727 051 to speak to a safety sign professional.