You might be surprised to hear that, in safety circles, silica is now often referred to as "the new asbestos."
It poses a significant health hazard and could rival the impact of asbestos in the years to come. Unfortunately the spike in new cases of silica related illnesses is due to a lack of understanding and poor workplace controls. Silica is far more widespread than most people realise and could be a serious health hazard at your workplace.
Crystalline Silica (SiO2) is a common mineral found in the earth's crust. Materials like sand, stone, concrete, and mortar contain crystalline silica. It is also used to make products such as glass, pottery, ceramics, bricks, and artificial stone.
Respirable Crystalline Silica – very small particles at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand – is created when cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, and crushing stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar.
Workers who inhale these very small Crystalline Silica particles are at increased risk of developing serious silica-related diseases, including:
Silicosis is a progressive, occupational lung disease resulting from inhalation of respirable Crystalline Silica and there is no known cure. What makes this so sad is that the disease is preventable through appropriate workplace practices.
Late last year, Australia’s peak body for lung health professionals demanded a national response after hearing that work-related lung diseases were on the rise. The Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) issued an official alert that workers who are regularly exposed to dusts may be at serious risk of developing a lung disease, and workplaces must do more to protect the health of their workers.
Then, on August 31 this year, the Victorian Trades Hall Council issued a new Standard. This was launched in response to the alarming increase in the number of workers suffering silicosis and lung cancers due to the inhalation of respirable crystalline silica while manufacturing, cutting and installing stone benchtops.
The Trades Hall Standard reduced the definition of safe exposure to silica to 0.025 mg/m3 in an 8-hour time-weighted average, which is four times lower than the current Australian one..
Schedule 9 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 and Schedule 14 of Work Health and Safety Regulations list Crystalline Silica as a hazardous substance. As an employer, you have a legal duty to:
That last point is probably not as well-known as it should be. OHS regulations require employers to provide health monitoring to workers exposed to crystalline silica at levels likely to exceed the Australian exposure standard. The monitoring includes chest X-rays, respiratory function tests (Spirometry), and records of exposure. These medical examinations should be done at least every five years.
Spirometry Testing is the mainstay for the screening and management of workers at risk of occupational lung disease. It should be performed on employees who are exposed to scheduled’ hazardous substances and there is a reasonable likelihood of an adverse impact on lung function occurring (i.e. exposure to asbestos, silica). .
Crystalline Silica is the new asbestos and the associated spike in related illnesses such as Silicosis is alarming. However, Crystalline Silica related illnesses are totally preventable if the correct monitoring and safety measures are put in place. How does your workplace measure up?