Working with Silica and Products Containing Silica – an overview

Safe Work Australia, the national statutory body overseeing workplace health and safety has published guidelines on working with silica and products containing silica. If you are a person undertaking or conducting a business, you should be aware that many construction materials contain silica, including asphalt, composite, cement, brick, concrete, plasterboards, pavers, tiles, and others.

Though manufacturers and distributors of products containing silica make every reasonable attempt to make their products safe, it can still pose risks to employees and the general public.

The health risks of silica dust

Respirable crystalline silica, known as silica dust, poses a significant health risk to workers who may breathe the substance in while on the job. Silica dust exposure can cause breathing problems, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, or silicosis, a type of massive fibrosis. These symptoms may not appear until many years after exposure. Silica can also cause eye irritation and eye damage. Those handling or close to silica should always wear personal protective equipment (PPE) as a minimum.

Identifying Silica Dust Hazards

Identifying silica dust and its presence in the air is accomplished by examining the content of certain silica-containing products. The top rock and rock products that contain silica are:

  • Granite – 25% to 40%
  • Shale – 22%
  • Natural sandstone – 67%
  • Composite stone – over 90%
  • Aggregates, mortar, and concrete – varies

Crushing, cutting, drilling, sanding, or sawing or any other type of action against stone can release silica dust into the air. Silica dust is invisible to the naked eye and can be suspended in air for long periods.

Reducing Silica Hazards

Using a hierarchy of control measures is a tried and tested method of reducing hazards in the workplace. The hierarchy of control should eliminate risks at the very top, followed by other hazard reducing measures such as:

  • Substituting hazards with safer alternatives
  • Isolating the hazard
  • Reduce risks through engineering controls
  • Reduce exposure through administrative controls
  • Use of personal protective equipment

PPE can include steel-toed boots, hard hats, gloves, masks, goggles, and hearing protection.

Actions and improvements to reduce incidence of illness and disease

If your workplace has any work practices that can generate dust from stone products, you will need to provide safety improvements.

Designating cutting areas away from other workers can reduce exposure risks, as can using wet methods for clean up or laying stones. Checking water connections and hoses and collecting slurry in a pan under saws or cutting tools for disposal are also known methods of reducing risks. Cutting and grinding with on-tool dust extraction can also help collect silica dust.

PPE should be maintained on a regular schedule which include masks, goggles, and earmuffs.

Employers should also provide training and refresher courses in proper silica dust hazards and risk assessment. Dust hazard signage should also be prominent throughout work sites and work areas. All workplaces should review their controls on a regular basis.

For more information, contact your local WHS regulator or Safe Work Australia. []