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Dangers of silica dust (part 1): Who's at risk?

Industrial workers, construction workers and miners are exposed to all kinds of hazardous substances on the job. One of the most common is silica dust. With particles 100 times smaller than sand, silica can readily enter the lungs and cause permanent damage, including lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney failure. Excess silica exposure can also cause silicosis, an occupational disease where particles accumulate in the lungs, leading to inflammation, lesions and buildup of scar tissue. In severe cases, it can be fatal.

How does exposure happen?

Silica is all around us, occurring naturally in soil and rock. It's also present in man-made substances such as concrete, brick, mortar and cement. The danger arises when silica dust (also called crystalline respirable silica) gets released into the air. This commonly happens during construction activities such as:

  • Abrasive blasting
  • Pressurized air-blowing
  • Stonecutting
  • Rock-drilling
  • Grinding
  • Mixing cement
  • Jack-hammering
  • Tuck-pointing
  • Crushing rock

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), roughly two million workers nationwide are at risk for silica exposure. Occupations with the highest levels of potential exposure include:

  • Miners
  • Foundry workers
  • Stoneworkers
  • Brick workers
  • Sand-blasters
  • Grinders

Even if you don't perform these jobs, simply working in the vicinity of activities that produce silica dust can have a lifelong impact on your health.

How is silica detected?

Because silica particles are so tiny, they don't always produce visible dust. Workers could suffer from chronic low-level exposure and not even know it. What's more, the particles can readily spread through clothing, unwashed hands and skin, footwear and anything else they come into contact with.

Employees have the right to know if silica is present at their workplace above certain minimum levels. Professional air monitoring is essential for getting a clear picture of this exposure.

Stay tuned for part two of this series to learn how silica exposure can impact your health - and which warning signs to watch for.

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