What is it? Silica is a common name for the chemical compound silicone dioxide - otherwise known as quartz.
This substance is naturally present (in varying amounts) in soil, rocks, clay and sand, as well as several construction products that contain these substances such as concrete, bricks, plasterboard, mortar, tiles, landscaping materials and some plastics
What are the dangers?
When you work with these materials they can create a very fine dust - too fine to see with normal lighting and the naked eye - called Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS). RCS can be extremely hazardous to your health when breathed into the lungs.
Some of the main activities which generate this hazardous dust are grinding, carving, sanding, cutting, polishing, blasting, chiselling, shovelling dry material, mixing and handling, breaking or drilling rock and dry sweeping the work area. The dust can also be carried on clothing or other surfaces, can leak or spill from containers on site, can be kicked up by moving vehicles or equipment and can remain hanging in the air from earlier activities on site.
How can it harm your health?
If you or your workers are exposed to levels of RCS beyond the recommended safe limit (see HSE guidance for more information (link: http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg463.pdf)) it can result in serious, irreversible lung damage and disease. This is why it is absolutely vital that you inform yourself and your workers about how to manage these risks around the workplace on a daily basis.
- Silicosis usually develops from long term exposure to RCS but a high exposure even over a short period can lead to sudden onset of the disease, which causes chronic and persistent breathing difficulties and increased risk of lung infection.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to several different lung diseases that all cause severe and chronic breathlessness, coughing and disability. Not only RCS but any kind of fine dusts that are breathed in can cause this and as such it is a primary cause of death among construction workers.
- Lung cancer can result from high exposure to RCS over the long term, and can be a further complication of Silicosis where the disease already exists, and people who suffer from Silicosis face an increased risk of lung cancer developing.
However, when dust is diligently managed and exposure suitably controlled, the health risks from RCS are small. Knowing how to protect yourself and your team - as well as others around you - from the risks of RCS is critical to keep everyone safe and well in the workplace.
As an employer, your major responsibilities in this area include:
- Keeping a written risk assessment of hazardous materials in the workplace
- Where possible, to substitute materials which contain lower percentages of RCS
- Manage and prevent exposure to RCS through good occupational hygiene and control measures
- Provide workers with adequate personal protective equipment
- Ensure all equipment that is used to control dust is well maintained and functioning properly
- Provide training in the use of equipment and management of the health risks of RCS
- Where necessary, monitor the health of workers who are at risk of exposure
As an employee, it is very important that you:
- Make sure you know about the silica content of any materials you are using
- Be well informed of the risks from RCS inhalation and how you can mitigate them
- Understand how to perform your work activities safely to avoid RCS exposure
- Follow safety and dust control procedures carefully and accurately
- Wear protective clothing at all times when expose to RCS through your own work or others
- If appropriate wear a respirator and ensure it is correctly fitted, maintained and stored and you are trained for the mask you are using
Be informed, be aware and be safe around Silica.