Top tips for introducing silica dust control measures in the workplace

Silica dust is a natural substance that, when inhaled, can have a detrimental effect on health. So much so, that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has warned against the bad effects of breathing silica dust. This is why it’s vital for employers to protect their workers’ wellbeing by preventing exposure to silica dust.

Lung disease caused by silica dust is called silicosis, which usually develops after being exposed to silica dust for many years. However, its symptoms (which include a persistent cough, shortness of breath and tiredness), may not occur until after you’ve stopped working with silica dust for a number of years. If left untreated, this will cause serious damage to your lungs, and increase the likelihood of also developing COPD and lung cancer.

Work has been done to calculate how much silica dust is harmful, and the workplace exposure limit (WEL) for silica dust currently stands at 0.1 mg/m3. Whatever the amount of silica dust inhalation, it’s clear that the health effects of breathing silica dust can be very nasty, prompting HSE silica dust guidance.

Where is silica dust found?

Having discovered what is silica dust, you’re probably wondering where does silica dust come from? Silica dust is found in rocks, sand and clay, as well as certain plastics. Because of the type of materials silica is naturally found in, construction and industrial workers are at an increased risk of coming into contact with silica dust and the health effects of silica dust inhalation. This is because when these materials are cut, sanded, or carved, they produce an extremely fine dust called respirable crystalline silica (RCS), which can cause health effects of silica dust, such as silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and even lung cancer if it’s breathed deep into your lungs.

What silica dust control measures can I take?

To reduce the chances of your workers breathing silica dust, the HSE silica dust advice is that employers must introduce a silica dust exposure control plan to comply with The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). This involves completing a risk assessment to identify whether alternative materials with a lower level of RCS can be used to reduce the risk of silica dust exposure.

For example, sandstone has the highest level of RCS, with this being estimated at 70-90%. Mortar and concrete are also estimated to have 25-70%. Brick, however, contains up to 30%, while limestone and marble is estimated to have just 2%, so substituting sandstone for marble could provide significant silica dust protection.

If it isn’t possible to use materials with low levels of RCS, you and your workers must take the necessary precautions for silica dust protection as much as possible. Here are some of our top tips for minimising the risk of silica dust exposure in the workplace…

Provide silica dust masks and suitable protective workwear

If your employees are going to be working with materials with high levels of silica dust, one of the best ways to minimise exposure is by providing them with the correct personal protective equipment (PPE), such as respirators to cover the nose and mouth. But what type of respirator for silica dust protection? Whether you provide disposable filtering respirators (which provide a minimal level of protection), or half or full-face respirators, will depend on the type of environment that your staff are working in.

No matter what type of respirator for silica dust is used, it’s vital to ensure disposable respirators are changed regularly, and that half and full-face respirators are cleaned after use in order to avoid lung disease caused by silica dust. To ensure a correct silica dust exposure control plan, it’s also crucial that silica dust masks are tight-fitting (this requires you to be clean shaven).

When working in the types of environments where silica dust is found (such as mines, quarries, railways, and general construction sites), your workers also need to wear the suitable high visibility or flame-resistant workwear. As with respirators, the type of protective workwear you’ll need to provide will depend on the environment they’re working in.

Correctly clean equipment and protective workwear for silica dust protection

We often hear the question: how long does silica dust stay in the air? At 12 days, that’s plenty of time for protective workwear to become polluted. If workwear worn in these environments is washed with other garments, these could be contaminated by the silica dust too, which can be so fine that it’s impossible to determine if it’s been completely removed from the workwear during the laundering process. Therefore, it’s essential that these garments are washed separately.

One of the best and easiest ways to eliminate extended silica dust exposure is by taking your laundry off site and using a specialist laundering company, such as phs Besafe. As part of our industrial laundering service, we launder the workwear in a soluble bag, which minimises contamination. All you need to do is place each garment in a bag (with a blue repair tag attached to the outside), place the bags in a dirty collector bin, and we’ll collect this from your site, in accordance with your silica dust exposure control plan.

When you know how long does silica dust stay in the air, you’ll realise that any equipment used when working with silica dust must be cleaned after each use, as well as stored in a clean, dust-free place when not in use.

Practice good personal hygiene at work, including silica dust control measures

Although employers have a legal obligation to protect the health, safety, and well-being of their staff, (which means they must comply with COSHH when employees are working with materials that create silica dust) individual employees are also responsible for following their employer’s health and safety advice and silica dust exposure control plan when working in such environments conducive to lung disease caused by silica dust.

As NIOSH (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) recommends, this involves each worker practicing good personal hygiene in the workplace. Some of the best ways this can be achieved is by changing into their protective workwear and silica dust mask when they arrive on-site; not eating, drinking or smoking in areas where silica dust is found; and washing their hands before eating, drinking, or smoking after working in these areas (even if they have left the site). Additionally, workers can practice good hygiene to achieve silica dust protection by showering (if possible) and changing out of their workwear before leaving the worksite.

For more information on how phs Besafe can help avoid the effects of silica dust inhalations with our protective workwear ranges, and specialist industrial laundry service, contact us today.

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