29 Sep 2022

A complete guide to silica dust

Dangers of Silica Dust

Not only is silica dust an annoyance, it can cause serious, long-term health problems – primarily lung disease. If silica dust isn’t efficiently controlled and workers are left to breathe it in on a regular basis, the consequences may be fatal – in fact, over 500 construction workers are believed to die from exposure to silica dust every year. With this complete guide, you’ll find out what silica dust is, why it can be so dangerous, and – most importantly – how to control it in the workplace. This way, you can ensure that your employees are provided with a safe working environment.

What is silica dust?

First things first, what is silica dust? And what causes it? 

Broadly described as construction dust, this can be split into three different types:

  • Silica dust: This is a natural substance that is created whilst carrying out various construction processes on materials such as concrete, mortar and sandstone – all of which contain silica.
  • Wood dust: This is created whilst working with softwood, hardwood or other wood-based products, such as MDF and plywood. 
  • ‘General’ dust: Dust can also be created when working on other materials that contain little or no silica, such as gypsum, limestone, marble and dolomite. 

What are the health risks of silica dust?

If there’s a chance of silica dust occuring in your workplace, it’s vital that you’re familiar with the health risks it can lead to. The main dust-related diseases that construction workers are most prone to are: 

  • Lung cancer
  • Silicosis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 
  • Asthma 

Although some can take a long time to develop, others – such as advanced silicosis or asthma – can come on relatively fast. 

How much silica dust is harmful?

As a business owner, it’s essential that you comply with The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). This will require a risk assessment to be carried out in order to assess how safe your workplace is. If anything significant is found in the risk assessment, it’s essential that changes are made to ensure the wellbeing of workers. 

The control measures put in place – which are highlighted below – must be effective in keeping construction dust exposure below the Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL). The limit is 0.1mg/m³ respirable dust, averaged over eight hours.

For more information on the guidelines, head over to our introduction to COSHH to learn more.

How to safely control silica dust

Perform a risk assessment

In order to determine the most appropriate control measures, a risk assessment should firstly be carried out. Employers must evaluate the following to determine whether there’s risk of silica dust exposure: 

  • Task: Does the line of work require usage of high-energy tools? These are more likely to increase the risk of dust exposure within a shorter space of time. 
  • Work area: Enclosed spaces are more at risk of dust build up. However, even when working outside, this doesn’t mean to say that there is no risk. 
  • Duration: How long does it take to complete work tasks? Those that take a longer period of time will create more dust. 
  • Frequency: If your workers are completing the same tasks every day, their risk of developing dust-related health conditions is more likely to increase. 

Control measures

If a heightened risk of dust intake is identified, it’s essential that efficient control measures are put in place to ensure that your workplace abides by health and safety regulations. Before starting work, steps must be taken to stop or reduce silica dust, and other forms of construction dust.

Reducing the amount of dust produced

The following are the most common methods of reducing the amount of dust produced: 

  • Using the correct size of building materials so that less cutting is required
  • Using silica-free abrasives when blasting 
  • Using less powerful tools 
  • Looking at alternative, safer methods of work

Even after applying the methods previously mentioned, other work could still lead to high levels of dust exposure. In this scenario, it’s important that steps are taken to prevent the dust from getting into the air – of which there are two common methods. 

Water suppression

The first is using water during construction processes, which dampens dust clouds. However, enough water must be supplied at the right levels for the full duration of a task, rather than simply wetting the material beforehand. As an example, water suppression can be used on a cut-off saw to reduce the risk of silica dust exposure. 

Install an industrial extraction system

Secondly, having an expert install an industrial dust extraction system is a surefire way to reduce the health risks associated with long-term dust exposure. The system works by collecting any dust that is produced during the working day – which will travel through a filter. This filter will then separate the dust, emitting now purified air back into the atmosphere, which ensures a healthy working environment for all. 

Provide respiratory protection equipment

Respiratory protection equipment (RPE) must also be provided for workers who are likely to come into contact with silica dust – or any construction dust. This is the last line of protection, so those who are relying solely on RPE must have sufficient reasoning for this. It’s essential that workers know how to wear this protective equipment correctly, and the correct sizing must be provided to ensure adequate protection. Not to mention, the equipment worn must be compatible with other protective equipment used, and they must be suitable for the task at hand. 

Whether you’re interested in high-quality industrial dust extraction, or you’re keen to learn more about other ways we can help optimise your workplace’s health and safety, contact our team today. From extraction solutions to fabrication services, we cover it all, offering a bespoke service that’s tailored to your business’s needs. 

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