Top tips for preventing exposure to silica dust in the workplace

phsbesafe workman standing in a large guarry

Silica, a natural substance that’s found in rocks, sand, and clay (as well as certain plastics), can have a detrimental effect on your health if it’s breathed into your lungs. This is why it’s vital for employers to protect their workers’ well-being by preventing exposure to silica dust.

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. 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 silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and even lung cancer if it’s breathed deep into your lungs.

Although silicosis is usually developed after being exposed to silica dust for many years, it’s 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 your likelihood of also developing COPD and lung cancer.

To reduce your worker’s exposure to silica dust, the HSE advises that employers must comply with The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH). This involves completing a risk assessment to identify if materials with a lower level of RCS can be used to reduce the risk of exposure.

For example, sandstone has the highest level of RCS, with this being estimated at 70-19%. 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%.

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

Provide 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. 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 your staff are working in. However, it’s vital to ensure disposable respirators are changed regularly, and that half and full-face respirators are cleaned after use, as well as being tight-fitting (this requires you to be clean shaven).

When working in the types of environments where materials containing silica dust are 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.

phs besafe workman in a high visibility coverall

Correctly clean equipment and protective workwear

One of the biggest concerns of working in environments with high levels of silica dust is contamination, and this can occur when laundering protective workwear. If workwear worn in these environments is washed with other garments, these could be contaminated by the silica dust, 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 exposure to silica dust is by taking your laundry off-site and using a specialist 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 addition to this, 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

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 instructions when working in such environments.

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 when they arrive on-site, not eating, drinking or smoking in areas where silica dust is present, 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 prevent their exposure to silica dust by showering (if possible) and changing out of their workwear before leaving the worksite.

For more information on phs Besafe’s protective workwear ranges, and specialist industrial laundry service, contact us today.

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