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Dangerous dust profile: What is silica dust and how to avoid it

Crystalline silica dust – A danger in the workplace

Crystalline silica dust is an invisible threat to your employees' health. As a business owner, it's up to you to ensure these harmful particles are eliminated before they reach your workers' lungs. Let’s take a look at what silica dust is and why it can be so harmful.

What is silica?

Silica is a substance naturally found in most rocks, sand, and clay. Some types of rocks contain more silica than others; for example, sandstone is more than 70% silica, but granite only ranges between 15% - 30%. Many construction materials, like bricks, tiles, concrete and mortar, also contain silica, which is why businesses in the manufacturing, construction, and logistics industries are affected by silica dust.

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Crystalline silica dust causes

Silica dust is generated during common construction work—if crew members are cutting, drilling, grinding, or polishing materials that contain silica, they are inevitably creating crystalline silica dust as well. The most hazardous form of this dust, known as respirable crystalline silica dust, is so small, it can't be seen by the naked eye. 

Silica dust puts your employees — and your business — in danger

Silica dust may be hard to see - unlike other forms of dust, it doesn't build up or damage equipment. This may lead some business owners to put off silica dust removal, but this could be a dangerous mistake. If your staff members are breathing in silica dust over a prolonged period of time, it can build up in their lungs and lead to serious health risks. On top of that, silica dust is a threat to your bottom line. Not only will employees require more sick leave, but you'll also be at risk of violating OSHA standards. 

Crystalline silica dust exposure and its dangerous results

Silicosis

The build-up of respirable crystalline silica dust particles in the lungs can lead to a dangerous illness known as silicosis. This condition is characterized by inflamed lungs, which can cause scarring and permanent disability. In some cases, silicosis may even be fatal. 

Lung and other cancers

There have been more than 100 studies that have found evidence linking silica dust exposure and lung cancerwhich according to the World Health Organization is the deadliest form of cancer worldwide. 

Other respiratory diseases

Respirable crystalline silica dust is associated with a number of illnesses that impair lung function, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Workers breathing in silica dust are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis or emphysema. 

Renal and autoimmune diseases

From the OSHA website: “There is also suggestive evidence that inhalation of silica dust can increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. In fact, an autoimmune mechanism has been postulated for some silica-associated renal disease.”

How to prevent crystalline silica dust in the workplace

The health and safety of your employees is your top priority. So what can you do to reduce the dangers of respirable silica dust? 

You can also use water to your advantage; wet working methods will help keep silica dust out of the air, as it will become stuck to wet surfaces.

Regularly cleaning equipment and work areas is one of the best ways to manage silica dust. However, there are specific ways you must clean, or else you could make the problem worse. Dry sweeping or using compressed air to blow away silica dust will spread it further into the air. Instead, use a water hose or vacuum cleaning system with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, which will protect anyone working nearby from silica dust exposure. 

construction worker and silica dust
Download your silica dust compliance guide

How Zehnder can help manage silica dust

Creating silica dust is part of the job, but taking care of it before it can reach your workers' lungs is crucial for protecting your employees and keeping your business running. The longer your workers are exposed to respirable silica dust, the more likely they are to contract a serious illness. If you want a simple, long-term solution to this problem, consider installing an industrial air cleaner that eliminates silica dust before it can cause a problem. Zehnder Clean Air Solutions can help you find and install the right cleaner for your workspace. Learn more in our guide. 

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