How can employers look after workers’ lungs by preventing harm from silica dust?
Love your Lungs Week is a British Lung Foundation initiative to promote better lung health, and special attention must be paid to silica dust which is considered to be the greatest risk to construction workers’ health after asbestos.
Alex Minett, Head of Product & Markets at CHAS and Cody Stahl, Account Manager at EnviroKlenz, look at how employers can look after workers’ lungs by preventing harm from silica dust.
What is Silica Dust and Why is it so Dangerous?
Silica dust exposure has been linked to 4,000 deaths a year from Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - a group of lung diseases that includes bronchitis and emphysema; while estimates suggest 500 UK construction workers die each year from silicosis - a form of lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of crystalline silica dust.
What’s more, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has listed COPD and silicosis as diseases that increase the risk of severe COVID-19 illness. While these statistics are troubling, thankfully, there are steps employers can take to protect their workforce.
Silicosis is also known as Potter’s Lung or Potter’s Rot for its prevalence amongst people working in pottery studios – it's an industry that suffers from the same silica problem as construction. The disease is caused by continuous breathing in of silica dust found in clay.
One study on silicosis revealed that among a tested group of 106 pottery workers, 55 per cent had at least some stage of silicosis, with disease severity ranging from Stage 1, which had an average dust exposure time of 7.5 years, to Stage 3 of silicosis with an average exposure of 16 years. With little direct ventilation and no form of personal protection from dust inhalation, the correlation between dust exposure and silicosis diagnosis was directly linked and the lack of precautionary efforts added to the risk that the workers were at.
Other Sectors at Risk
Because silica is a natural substance found in some stone, rock, sand and clay and mineral ores like quartz, people who work in the following industries are particularly at risk:
Stone masonry and stone cutting – especially with sandstone
Construction and demolition – as a result of exposure to concrete and paving materials
Ceramics and glass manufacturing
Mining and quarrying
Plaster or Drywall Installation
The HSE recommendshealth surveillance for silicosis should be considered for workers who are involved in high-risk occupations, including those named above. Where workers are regularly exposed to RCS dust and there is a reasonable likelihood that silicosis may develop, health surveillance must be provided.
Identify the Risk
Alex Minett from CHAS says that when it comes to silica dust, it’s important to remember that what you can’t see can hurt you:
"Silica dust is a natural substance present in materials that construction workers work with daily, such as bricks, tiles, concrete, and mortar. Cutting, sanding and grinding these materials releases Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) which is so fine it can reach deep inside the lungs and cause significant harm to health.
"RCS particles are at least 100 times smaller than a grain of sand and in most lights, they are too fine to be seen by the naked eye. Consequently it can be easy to underestimate the risks. The workplace exposure limit for RCS is just 0.1mg over eight hours - the equivalent of a small pinch of salt."
Reducing the Risks of Silicosis
As with all hazards, it’s preferable to limit the amount of dust you create before considering control methods. The HSE suggests this could include using a different material or method of work, such as using a nail gun to directly fasten cable trays instead of drilling holes, or even by adopting offsite construction methods.
Where it’s not possible to eliminate dust, consider other measures to control and reduce the dangers, such as planning work to keep cutting and preparation to a minimum or opting for a less powerful tool.
Silica dust should also be controlled at source to prevent it from becoming air bound by choosing tools with effective dust extraction (Class M or H rated extractors are recommended) and using methods such as wet cutting and wet sweeping, though these must be carried out effectively to have an impact.
Portable purifiers such as EnviroKlenz Air Systems are worth considering for a pottery studio, as they capture and destroy 99.9% of airborne pathogens and pollutants, backed by third-party testing and accomplished through a double filtration system of the EnviroKlenz Air Cartridge and a HEPA filter. Utilizing patented earth-mineral technology, the Air System locks in any particulate matter that enters its unit, providing superior indoor air quality in return. This beneficially impacts the health of a potter by promoting a cleaner, safer environment to work in.
“Potters really need to consider the indoor air quality of their studio as around 55 per cent of pottery workers have at least some stage of silicosis. This disease can be easily prevented by limiting silica dust inhalation through ventilation and purification efforts, and the EnviroKlenz Air System Plus is a great solution when dealing with dust particulates.
"The EnviroKlenz air cleaner is durable, portable, and effective at removing 99.9 per cent airborne pathogens and pollutants from the air, creating a safer and worry-free work environment for pottery workers as well as operatives who are involved with demolition, stone masonry and associated building maintenance tasks."
Choose a Suitable Dust Mask
PPE should always be the last line of defence but where it is necessary, be careful to choose the most appropriate respiratory protective equipment (RPE). This is especially important given the current widespread availability of COVD-19 masks that are unlikely to provide sufficient protection against silica dust.
Minett from CHAS continued:
"Similarly, nuisance-grade dust masks do not protect the lungs. Look for a dust mask with an assigned protection factor of 20. Use either FFP3 filtering facepieces or orinasal respirators with P3 filters. Fit testing is also essential to ensure any equipment selected is suitable for the wearer. It is a legal requirement for workers using tight fitting respiratory protective equipment to be fit tested by a competent person as explained in CoSHH regulations. User training on how to wear and care for RPE is also important."
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