Since 1968, more than 14,000 workers have died in the United States from a lung disease called silicosis, says the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Each year, more than 200 American workers die from silicosis. While workers as young as 22 years of age have succumbed to the illness very quickly, sometimes within a year, the most common length of time to develop silicosis is between 10 and 20 years.
The malady, which is disabling and often fatal, is caused by breathing dust that contains very small pieces of crystalline silica found in concrete, masonry, paint, rock, sandstone, and other abrasives. It’s also in mortar, plaster, shingles, and soil. Abrasive blasting, breaking, crushing, cutting, drilling, or grinding of these materials forms the fine silica dust. People who work with and around these materials are most likely to be exposed.
How are People Exposed to Silica Dust?
Workers become exposed to silica dust in many ways. The most common are:
- Abrasive blasting of bridges, pipes, tanks, and other painted surfaces, especially while using silica sand
- Abrasive blasting of concrete, e.g., concrete bridges or buildings
- Chipping, crushing, drilling, dumping, or hammering of concrete or rock
- Chipping, drilling, grinding, hammering, or sawing concrete or masonry
- Demolishing concrete and masonry structures
- Dry sweeping or pressurized air-blowing of concrete or dust
- Grinding mortar
- Jackhammering various materials
- Removing paint and rust with power tools
- Working in a foundry that uses industrial sand
- Working in the oil industry where hydraulic fracking occurs
The fastest growing segment of workers exposed to silica dust, however, is that of engineered stone fabrication (quartz) workers. The CDC reports that between 2010 – 2018, quartz surface imports to the United States increased approximately 800 percent due to the popularity of engineered stone countertops, and so, more workers have been exposed. “Engineered stone,” the CDC says, “contains substantially more silica than natural stone (greater than 90 percent compared with less than 45 percent in granite).”
Clusters of silicosis cases, some requiring lung transplants, had already occurred among workers who cut engineered stone in Israel, Italy and Spain when doctors saw the first North American case in 2014.
A recent Australian study found at least 12% of workers who cut stone countertops had silicosis. Those cases, and the new cases in the United States discovered between 2017 – 2019 in California, Colorado, Texas, and Washington have public health experts worrying about the nearly 100,000 U.S. workers in this industry.
Who is At Risk of Developing Silicosis?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that approximately 2.3 million Americans are exposed to silica at work.
Workers especially affected and at risk of developing silicosis are those who do:
- Abrasive blasting
- Bridge and highway construction and repair
- Building construction, demolition, and repair
- Concrete finishing
- Drywall finishing
- Foundry work
- Gravel and sand screening
- Hydraulic fracturing (fracking)
- Manufacturing of artificial stone, bricks, ceramics, concrete, glass, and pottery
- Masonry work
- Oil and gas extraction
- Quarry work
- Rock crushing (for road base)
- Rock drilling
- Stone fabrication
- Work in dental laboratories
Non-occupational exposure also happens. The Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reports workers who experienced ambient exposure due to the proximity of their workplaces to silica-based industries are also at risk of developing silicosis as well as silico-tuberculosis.
What Precautions Can People Take to Limit Exposure?
Silica dust exposure is preventable. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, “employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace. They must determine which jobs and activities expose workers to silica and take actions to control overexposures and protect workers.” Those actions should include a combination of engineering controls, work practices, protective equipment, worker training, and other measures.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a recommended exposure limit (REL) of no more than 50 μg/m3 of air, as determined by a full-shift sample for up to a 10-hour workday of a 40-hour workweek. OSHA has a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for quartz of no more than eight hours and for pure quartz silica, the PEL is approximately equal to 100 μg/m3 of air. Both NIOSH and OSHA recommend that employers take protective actions to keep worker exposures below the NIOSH REL.
To limit exposure and reduce the amount of silica dust, the CDC recommends you:
- Avoid working in dust whenever possible.
- Be aware of health effects of breathing air that has silica dust in it.
- Know what causes silica dust in your workplace.
- Remember that if there is no visible dust, you could be at risk. If there is visible dust, you are almost definitely at risk.
- Use water sprays and ventilation when working in confined structures, e.g.,
- Use a water hose to wet dust before it becomes airborne.
- Use saws that add water to the blade.
- Use drills that add water through the stem or have dust collection systems.
- Use blast cleaning machines or cabinets to control dust.
- Use employer-provided, properly fitted, and selected respirator, e.g., particulate filter or airline-supplied air respirator, designated for protection against crystalline silica.
- Do not make any changes to the respirator.
- Keep a clean-shaven face as beards and mustaches do not let respirators properly seal to the face.
- Take health or lung screening programs offered by employers.
- Use a CE-type abrasive blasting respirator when sandblasting or abrasive-blasting.
- Practice good hygiene at the workplace:
- Do not eat, drink, or use tobacco products in dusty areas.
- Wash hands and face before drinking, eating, or smoking outside dusty areas.
- Park car where it won’t be contaminated with silica.
- Change into disposable or washable work clothes at the worksite.
- Shower (if possible) and change into clean clothes before leaving the worksite to prevent cross-contamination of cars, homes, and other work areas.
If you think you are not protected, call OSHA at 1-800-OSHA (6742), go to the OSHA website at www.osha.gov, or call a silicosis lawyer.
How We Help Silicosis Victims
Seek justice with the help of our experienced silicosis attorneys. Our Dallas, Texas, law firm represents workers exposed to dangerous silica dust on the job, aggressively fighting to hold these companies responsible for failing to keep workers safe. If you or a loved one has suffered chronic lung diseases like silicosis, we can help.