Health Risks of Respirable Crystalline Silica (Construction Dust) and Preventative Measures

Respirable crystalline silica is extremely dangerous to the health of many workers. The hazardous dust particles are present across many different construction jobs and it can lead to extreme health effects and fatalities if workers are not properly protected.

Continue reading to learn about the dangers of respirable silica dust, which workers are most at risk, and what should be done to prevent health and safety risks in the workplace.

What is Respirable Crystalline Silica?

Respirable crystalline silica, also known as RCS, silica dust, or construction dust, is found in rock, sand, bricks, and concrete, though it is not limited to just those. When these materials are ground, cut, drilled, or sanded in mechanical and manufacturing processes, or when cement powder is mixed and/or shovelled, respirable crystalline silica is released into the air as dust. The dust is so fine that the particles are 100 times smaller than a grain of sand. Therefore, you can breathe it in without knowing it and without ever seeing it.

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Visual: Cancer Council’s Occupational Cancer Risk Series.

Inhaling respirable crystalline silica over time can result in the development of many lethal diseases, as the respirable silica dust particles are able to deeply penetrate the lung tissue.

💡 Learn more about silica dust from the Australian Cancer Council.

Workers Who Are Most at Risk

Generally, construction workers are most at risk of deadly exposure to respirable crystalline silica. Some construction workers are more at risk than others depending on the requirements of their job. There are non-construction industries at risk, too, including mining and pottery making.

The following jobs are known to produce respirable silica dust particles which put workers at risk:

  • Abrasive blasting
  • Blasting with sand to remove paint and rust
  • Drywalling and plastering
  • Paving and surfacing
  • Excavating
  • Angle grinding
  • Jackhammering
  • Rock/well drilling
  • Concrete mixing
  • Concrete drilling
  • Cutting brick, concrete, or stone
  • Tuckpointing
  • Stone and clay processing
  • Producing and installing engineered or manufactured stone countertops
  • Producing metal castings (foundry)
  • Tunnelling
  • Mining and quarrying
  • Hydraulic fracturing of gas/oil wells
  • Pottery making

Workers that participate in abrasive blasting are especially at risk. Safe Work Australia describes abrasive blasting as: “the act of propelling a stream of abrasive material at high speed against a surface using compressed air, liquid, steam, centrifugal wheels or paddles to clean, abrade, etch or otherwise change the original appearance or condition of the surface.” This act can create severe exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

Respirable Crystalline Silica Health Effects

Respirable crystalline silica is the cause of a number of negative health effects. It is estimated that 230 people develop lung cancer each year as a result of past exposure to respirable crystalline silica at work.

The health problems associated with prolonged exposure to respirable crystalline silica include:

  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Lung cancer
  • Kidney disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Fibrosis
  • Silicosis (acute, accelerated, and chronic)

Silicosis is an irreversible hardening and scarring of the lung tissue. The condition will continue to develop even after exposure to respirable crystalline silica has ceased. Silicosis results in extreme shortness of breath and loss of lung function due to an excess of protein and fibrotic nodules (scarring) in the lungs. Those who suffer from silicosis cannot travel long distances on foot, confining them to their house or bed. Often silicosis can result in premature death due to heart failure.

💡 Learn more about the causes and effects of silicosis from Safe Work Australia.

Protecting Workers From Respirable Crystalline Silica

Due to the extreme risk and fatal health effects, it’s crucial that both employers and employees implement all possible safeguards in the workplace. Employers should invest in all means possible to ensure the health and safety of their workers. Employees also hold a great responsibility in making sure all safety measures are understood and followed.

Wear protective equipment

Suggested protective clothing should always be worn in the presence of crystalline silica dust. Employers should provide reliable equipment that meets current safety standards. Employees are responsible for wearing all required equipment. Protective clothing should never be altered or worn if damaged.

Use respirator properly and avoid facial hair

Always use respirator protection as required and never alter your protective equipment. If you are required to wear a tight-fitting respirator, ensure you do not have a beard or moustache that could prevent a proper seal between your face and the respirator.

Ventilate working areas

If working inside, take care in ventilating the working area. Wherever feasible, use local exhaust ventilation and blasting cabinets to avoid exposure.

Use crystalline silica substitutes

Since so many raw materials contain crystalline silica, substitutes are not often available. If possible, replace crystalline silica materials with substitutes that are safer to work with. For example, nutshells and other organic materials can sometimes be used as an alternative in abrasive blasting.

Participate in all required training

Crystalline silica poses very severe health risks to workers. It is crucial the proper training be provided to workers who are regularly exposed to crystalline silica particles. Employees should also take responsibility for participating in all required training to best protect themselves.

Remove, change, and clean clothing

When the work day is complete, change out of your work clothes immediately and wash them before wearing them again. If possible, use the shower facilities right away. At a minimum, vacuum the dust from your clothing before leaving the work site so that you don’t bring dangerous particles into your car or home.

Wash thoroughly

Always wash your hands and face immediately after exposure to crystalline silica particles. Make sure you are outside of any dusty areas when you wash up. Washing your hands and face is important before eating or drinking anything.

Don’t ingest around crystalline silica

Avoid eating or drinking when you are around crystalline silica. Opening your mouth will allow dangerous particles to enter your body. Take your meals and breaks a good distance away from the work site.

Don’t apply cosmetics

Don’t apply cosmetics in areas where crystalline silica dust is present. You want to ensure particles don’t stick to your face or get into your eyes.

Limit or avoid smoking

Smoking cigarettes, cigars, vapes, and marijuana all contribute to lung damage. If you are already susceptible to lung damage due to silica exposure, you should avoid or limit these activities so that you do not further your risk.

People who do smoke should not do it around crystalline silica dust as particles can be pulled into your body along with the cigarette smoke.

Ensure workers are fit for their role

Because of the extreme health risks associated with crystalline silica, it is imperative that employees be physically and mentally prepared for their role. Pre-employment medicals assess a candidate's fitness for the job as well as their current health before they step foot in the workplace. The medical assessments mitigate future health and safety risks and safeguard the long-term overall health of a business.

💡 Learn more about The Importance of Pre-Employment Medicals and Employer Benefits.

WHA offers comprehensive pre-employment medical assessments using a proprietary software program that manages the entire medical from booking to processing to delivering your results. Learn more about our tailored pre-employment medical services available at our facilities across Australia and New Zealand, or on-site for your convenience.

What Else Can Employers Do?

Routine employee health checks help to monitor employee health on an ongoing basis. In industries at risk of exposure to respirable crystalline silica, it’s especially important for employers to stay on top of employee health all year-round. Health checks can identify health concerns before they develop into serious and sometimes irreversible cases.

An employee health check accounts for a range of check-ups that help identify current and possible health risks while monitoring the overall wellbeing of a workforce. Ensure your entire workforce is safe and healthy for the duration of their employment and beyond. Employee health checks also support an aging workforce, reduce employee downtime from illness or injury, reduce workers’ compensation claims, and reduce insurance costs, which will all save a business time and money long-term.

💡 Learn more in The Importance of Employee Health Checks.

Continue Supporting Your Workforce

According to the Heart Foundation, 51 lives are lost to heart disease every day. Employers should consider the risk heart disease poses to their workforce as well as the steps they can take to ensure a safe and healthy workplace. Learn more about Taking Care of Your Heart Health at Work to Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease.

Everyone, young and old, is vulnerable to hearing loss. In Australia, approximately 3.55 million adults suffer hearing loss to some degree. Are You Unaware of Hearing Loss in The Workplace?

Workforce Health Assessors offers comprehensive pre-employment medical, pre-placement, and periodic medical assessments tailored to the needs of your business. We organise, perform, and report on all health assessments and medicals to help you determine the suitability of candidates for your business and mitigate risks in the workplace. Our tests are carefully designed and vary depending on the specifications of the role a candidate will fill. Learn more about our pre-employment medical and other health assessment services.