What you should know about silica dust
Silica dust is toxic from the first cut, so it’s important to take measures now to protect your workplace and yourself from its harmful effects.
What’s crystalline silica?
Crystalline silica is a natural mineral found in construction materials such as bricks, concrete, tiles, mortar, reconstituted stone and sandstone. Reconstituted stone such as engineered stone benchtops contains up to 95% crystalline silica, which is considered very high.
The amount of crystalline silica present will vary depending on the material. You can check the safety data sheet (SDS) or other information from a supplier to see if a product contains crystalline silica.
Exposure to crystalline silica dust
Cutting, grinding, jackhammering, drilling or polishing products containing crystalline silica will release very fine dust particles into the air. This means workers in both the construction and demolition industry may be exposed to crystalline silica dust.
Health risks of crystalline silica
When inhaled, silica dust leads to deadly diseases, including:
• Lung cancer
• Kidney disease
• Autoimmune disease
Silicosis occurs when crystalline silica dust scars the lungs. Symptoms of this disease include shortness of breath, coughing, weight loss and fatigue. Sufferers of silicosis can require a lung transplant or die.
Legal duties when working with crystalline silica
• Do not use power tools for cutting, grinding or abrasive polishing without controls in place.
• Use integrated water delivery system to supply continuous feed of water or a commercially available on-tool extraction system connected to a Dust Class H Vacuum to capture dust.
• If above is not reasonably practicable, use Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) with Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE).
If using concrete, hebel, or mortar, employers must eliminate* the risk associated with exposure to crystalline silica. If exposure cannot be eliminated, then reducing risk by providing the highest level of protection available outlined in the hierarchy of control set out in Part 4.1 of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations).
• Eliminate the source by pre-fabricating products and removing the need to make adjustments on site.
• Substitute the source for a different less hazardous product or less hazardous form of the product.
• Engineer controls by using dust extraction tools or a water delivery system that supplies a continuous feed of water to the tool.
• Isolate the source of exposure, for example by physically separating people from working near where any crystalline silica dust is being created.
If an employer has applied any of the above, or a combination, and a risk still exists then administrative constraints must be applied. Employers can do this by:
• Rotating shifts between high exposure and low exposure tasks
• Implementing regular housekeeping practices, for example vacuums, wet techniques such as low-pressure hosing, mopping, squeegeeing or wet wiping. If the risk remains, then Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) must be provided.
Exposure standards in the workplace
Respirable crystalline silica must not exceed 0.05mg/m3 (eight hour time weighted average) according to the workplace exposure standards.
It is recommended by WorkSafe Victoria that employees are not exposed to levels above .02mg/m3 as a time weighted average, as a precautionary measure to prevent silicosis and minimise the risk of lung cancer.
Employers must carry out atmospheric monitoring of crystalline silica supplied to or generated at the employer's workplace if:
• There is reasonable uncertainty whether the legal exposure standard is or may be exceeded, or
• Atmospheric monitoring is needed to determine whether there is any potential risk to health.
If exposure to crystalline silica is probable to harmfully affect an employees health the employers must provide health monitoring services.
Workplace legislation is subject to differ from state to state. For more information on your states legislation, and controlling crystalline silica exposure in your workplace, visit www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/silica.
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