Inhaling crystalline silica can lead to serious, sometimes fatal illnesses including silicosis, lung cancer, tuberculosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When workers breathe in dust containing silica the lung tissue reacts by developing fibrotic nodules and scarring around the trapped silica particles. This fibrotic condition of the lung is called silicosis. If the nodules become too large, breathing becomes difficult and death may result. Silicosis may develop after very short periods of high exposure, but more commonly it develops after many years of lower levels of exposure. There is no cure for silicosis.
Initially, workers with silicosis may have no symptoms. As silicosis progresses, they may experience difficulty breathing and other chest symptoms such as a cough. There are three types of silicosis:
In 1996, the World Health Organization – International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC) changed its classification of crystalline silica from a probable human carcinogen to a known human carcinogen. In 2009, IARC reaffirmed its position noting “[an] increased risk of lung cancer was observed across various industries and processes.”
Exposure to silica has also been linked to renal disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Exposures are of such a magnitude and character that a significant number of workers risk developing serious long or short term health effects.
There are numerous studies detailing the silica exposure-disease relationship. NIOSH estimates that at least 1.7 million workers may be exposed to respirable crystalline silica and that many are exposed at levels exceeding current standards (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/silica/). In addition, a study of death certificates of white males under age 65 found a 3 fold increase in the risk of death from silicosis among construction workers based on proportionate mortality ratios (“Assessment of mortality in the construction industry in the United States, 1984–1986,” Robinson, et, al, 1995). A 2003 study (“Estimating the Total Number of Newly-Recognized Silicosis Cases in the U.S.,” Rosenman, et, al, 2003) found further evidence that cases of silicosis are significantly underreported. Using information from death certificates combined with data from a state-based active surveillance system, the researchers estimated that there were “3,600 to 7,300 [silicosis] cases per year in the United States from 1987 to 1996.”
The following documents from NIOSH provide extensive detail on the exposure-disease relationship.
• Health Effects of Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica (NIOSH Pub# 2002-129)
• Preventing Silicosis and Deaths in Construction Workers (NIOSH Pub# 96-112)
• Occupational Health Guideline for Crystalline Silica, September 1978
Work Safely with Silica” at www.silica-safe.org provides information needed to assess the risk, determine if a material contains silica, and an on-line tool to create a job hazard analysis and plan for controlling exposures.
To determine if your worksite has high exposures to silica during these operations, you should: see if the materials you are using contain silica (materials or products containing more than 0.1% silica must be labeled) and measure exposure.
OSHA has a Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for exposure to crystalline silica under 29 CFR 1926.55(a) of 0.1 mg/m3 based on an 8-hour time weighted average. OSHA also requires hazard communications training for workers exposed to crystalline silica, as well as a respiratory protection program until engineering controls are implemented.
In September 2008, CalOSHA issued a standard “Control of Employee Exposures from Dust-Generating Operations Conducted on Concrete or Masonry Materials.”
In December, 2004, New Jersey signed a law prohibiting the dry cutting and dry grinding of masonry.
NIOSH recommends an exposure limit lower than the OSHA PEL. The NIOSH Recommended Exposure Limit (REL), published in 1974, is 0.05 mg/m3 based on a time-weighted average for up to 10 hours.
The American Conference of Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) recommends a Threshold Limit Value of 0.025 mg/m3 based on an 8-hour time-weighted average.
Federal OSHA Standards are enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor in 26 states. There are currently 22 states and jurisdictions operating complete State plans (covering both the private sector and state and local government employees) and 5 - Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and the Virgin Islands - which cover public employees only. If you are working in one of those states or jurisdictions you should ensure that you are complying with their requirements.