There are many different health risks associated with working on a construction site. One of those which is often overlooked by many construction firms and safety managers is respiratory illness. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), around 12,000 people die from lung disease each year which is linked to past exposures at work.
Respiratory illnesses occur when workers breathe in harmful substances. One substance that is often abundant on construction sites is silica dust. The effects of silica dust inhalation can be very harmful – so much so that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have created new rules in relation to protecting workers who may be exposed to it. This article will highlight everything you need to know about the dangers of silica dust and why it is essential for construction safety managers to enforce the OSHA silica standard.
What exactly is silica dust?
Silica dust comes from crystalline silica – a common mineral found in the earth’s crust. Crystalline silica is found in sand, stone, concrete, and mortar. It’s also used in the production of artificial stone, bricks, ceramics, pottery, and glass. When materials like concrete and stone are drilled, cut, or crushed, respirable crystalline silica is produced. These tiny particles are at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand and are released into the air where they can be inhaled by anyone who comes into contact with them. Studies estimate that over one million workers per year are exposed to silica.
Unfortunately, silica dust inhalation has been shown to increase a worker’s risk of developing fatal diseases including:
- Silicosis, which is an incurable lung disease that causes disability and can lead to premature death
- Lung cancer
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Kidney disease
The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) has stated that around 500 UK construction workers die each year from silicosis. Silica is also thought to contribute to around 4,000 deaths from COPD each year and believes that around 75,000 cases per year could be prevented if action was taken. There are also concerns that COVID-19 could be accelerating the rate of deaths in those workers with respiratory diseases – something which has marked those with conditions like COPD as extremely clinically vulnerable in the current pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, construction site projects involve many activities that can produce silica dust. These include:
- Abrasive sandblasting
- Sawing concrete and brick
- Grinding mortar
- Sanding or drilling into stone and concrete
- Cutting or crushing stone
- Manufacture of brick, concrete blocks, and more
Since silica dust is virtually invisible to the naked eye, the dangers it poses are easily overlooked. To help protect workers from silica-related diseases, OSHA has created the following rule on respirable crystalline silica:
What is the OSHA Silica Standard?
The OSHA Silica Standard requires those employers whose work is covered by the standard to determine the levels of respirable crystalline silica that employees are exposed to and take the appropriate steps to limit this using respiratory protection where necessary.
To create this new standard, the OSHA performed a number of common construction tasks that produced dust in a controlled environment and then measured how much dust was produced depending on how the task was done. This information has been used to tell construction employers and safety teams how a task should be performed and/or the minimum personal protective equipment (PPE) that should be worn while doing it.
For example, the OSHA standard states that cutting should be carried out using saws equipped with an integrated water delivery system that continuously feeds water to the blade in order to minimize dust emissions. PPR should also be worn when using a hand saw for more than four hours. You can read the full compliance guide for the Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for Construction here.
The importance of PPE for protecting workers from silica dust inhalation
Personal Protective Equipment, better known as PPE, is a basic safety requirement on all construction sites. Exactly what PPE workers need will depend on the tasks that they are involved in, the length of time they are working for and the environment they are working in, and can include items such as protective headwear, gloves, masks and aprons. In the case of silica dust, respiratory PPE should be worn in line with the OSHA standard and recommendations. This may involve the use of disposable respirators, particulate filters, and face masks. Consult the standard for more specific information on PPE.
Silica-disease lawsuits can be very costly
Most occupational respiratory diseases take months or years to develop, but that doesn’t mean that a lack of safety and PPE during construction projects won’t come back to bite you. Compensation claims are already going through for claimants who have contracted respiratory issues as a result of construction employer negligence. In July 2019, a $332 million class action settlement was approved by courts in South Africa, following a long legal battle by miners to win compensation for illnesses that were reported to have been contracted over decades due to negligence in health and safety.
Meanwhile, in Australia, WorkSafe insurers have accepted a compensation claim for an employee diagnosed with lupus following long-term exposure to silica dust. The claimant will now receive weekly payments and compensation for related medical expenses and intends to sue their former employer for negligence.
And in 2019 in the UK, Lancashire contractor Playscape Design, a landscaping contractor specialising in playground construction, was fined £20,000 (approx. $27,000) for failing to provide adequate control measures for silica exposure, putting the health of their employees at risk.
With more lawsuits likely to follow unless action is taken, it’s more important than ever for construction companies and construction safety teams to follow OSHA’s rule on respirable crystalline silica.
How can GoContractor help?
Construction site safety is a serious responsibility and with many elements involved, safety managers have their work cut out for them when it comes to staying organised and ensuring all workers are up to date with their training and compliance, even when OSHA’s Silica Standard is concerned. GoContractor helps to streamline all safety processes into one highly accessible, custom platform that is designed not only to suit your company, but also the needs of each individual project.
Checking the training and compliance of workers couldn’t be easier. GoContractor lets you store all worker records on one, centralized platform that can be accessed 24/7 from anywhere in the world. Set reminders to show when each worker is out of compliance so that you can address this ahead of time, before their ability to work lapses and puts your project schedule back. GoContractor even synchronizes with access software, helping you to control which workers are allowed on site and which are denied access. Safety managers can even control this on their smartphones, making sure only trained and compliant workers can enter.
GoContractor also lets safety managers upload bespoke training that is language, role and project-specific and can be accessed remotely, enabling your workers to get the training that they need, before they even step foot on site. This keeps your safety teams supervising on-site and avoids unnecessary repetition. With proper training, workers will understand how to comply with OSHA’s Silica Standard and this will reduce the risk of your employees developing silica-related and other respiratory diseases.
Find out how GoContractor can help your construction business ensure all workers on site are trained, certified, and have the proper documentation to stay safe on site. Contact us today for a demo.