Silicosis: The deadly, but preventable threat to construction workers

Mitigating this progressive disease a key point of CSDSW program

Silicosis: The deadly, but preventable threat to construction workers

Mitigating this progressive disease a key point of CSDSW program
A saw is used to cut through rock.
Silicosis is a type of pulmonary fibrosis caused by years of inhaling minuscule slivers of silica, which can be released during the sawing, coring, or drilling of a multitude of construction materials.

It’s a type of pulmonary fibrosis - or scarring of the lungs – resulting from years of inhaling minuscule slivers of silica, a material commonly found in sand, quartz, and other types of rock used on construction sites across the globe. Sawing, coring, or drilling these rocks and composites made from them releases silica particles into the air. Exposure to silica can then occur if workers are not properly shielded from the dust by a ventilation system, personal protective equipment (PPE), or other measures.

Silicosis is a progressive disease. Someone who has been exposed might not develop symptoms for decades. It often starts as something as simple as an irritating cough or excess mucus, but then it starts to become difficult to breathe, which leads to fatigue. As it progresses further, additional symptoms such as weight loss, chest pain, swollen legs, and/or blue lips can occur. Silicosis also increases your risk of developing other lung diseases, such as lung cancer or tuberculosis.

There is no cure for silicosis.

Symptoms can be alleviated through treatments such as using a device called a bronchodilator to relax your air tubes and decrease inflammation. Pulmonary rehabilitation exercises can help silicosis patients maintain an active lifestyle, and supplemental oxygen may be prescribed if the lungs aren’t getting enough oxygen as the disease progresses.

In the most severe cases, a lung transplant is the only option. These surgeries are exorbitantly expensive; according to the American Lung Association, a lung transplant can cost more than $1.3 million.

While silicosis can’t be cured, it can be prevented. Education is an important step in preventing silica exposure, as well as reducing other risks of the construction industry. Since 2018, GPRS has sponsored the annual Concrete Sawing & Drilling Safety Week (CSDSW) program to provide this crucial education to our construction partners.

To date, GPRS has trained 12,000 workers through our CSDSW program. One of our main topics of discussion during these training sessions is silicosis and how to reduce the risk of silica exposure.

Specifically, our team members discuss the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and best practices for working safely with silica. Silicosis has claimed countless lives. OSHA reports that every year approximately 2.3 million workers in the U.S. are at risk of silica exposure in the workplace. Two million of these Americans work in the construction industry.

One major issue in the efforts to mitigate this deadly disease is that, until recently, employers had minimal surveillance requirements when it came to the risk of silica exposure and reporting cases. An estimated 2,500 to 5,000 cases of silicosis go undiagnosed annually in the U.S., according to a report by Environmental Health.

In 2019, OSHA instituted new and stricter respirable silica standards for job sites. The standards define a new, lower permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica (50 μg/m3, calculated as an 8-hour time-weighted average), and an employer’s responsibilities for ensuring that no employee is exposed to an amount exceeding this PEL. Also included are employer requirements for monitoring the air quality of job sites, providing employees with respirators, and crafting a written exposure control plan for the workplace.

The stated goal of OSHA’s initiative is to save up to 700 lives and reduce new silicosis cases by 1,600 per year.

A worker uses a saw to cut concrete.
Employers are required to do more than ever before to keep their employees safe from silica exposure, but employees must utilize the resources now available and adhere to the controls put in place for their protection.

Under these OSHA regulations, employers have several options for protecting their workers from silica exposure. They can use exhaust ventilation, such as vacuum systems, to mitigate dust, and/or lay down sweeping powder before attempting to disturb/sweep the concrete dust. The material can also be wetted down before sawing or drilling occurs to reduce the amount of silica dust that is released into the air in the first place. If these steps do not keep dust levels low enough, employers must provide their crews with properly fitting respirators.

While employers are required to do more than ever before to keep their employees safe, employees also have a responsibility to utilize the resources now available to them and adhere to the controls put in place for their protection. 90% of respondents in a recent Industrial Hygiene (IH) survey said they encounter problems getting their workers to properly use PPE. Poor fit and ignorance of the rules were just some of the reasons employees gave for not wearing respirators or other protective equipment.

Teaching employees the importance of PPE, and the risks posed by not utilizing it while on the job site, will go a long way towards keeping everyone safe. Silicosis is a fatal disease, but it is preventable if everyone does their part to mitigate exposure. OSHA states that every $1 spent on safety training saves employers $5 in lost man hours, downtime, and medical cost.

GPRS’ Concrete Drilling and Safety talks come at no out-of-pocket cost to you and your team. From January 23-27, 2023, our concrete experts are bringing their wealth of experience – plus a free breakfast or lunch – to your job site to teach your people about the various risks associated with cutting and coring concrete, and best practices to avoid pinch points, kickbacks, and silicosis.

Time is running out to schedule your CSDSW safety talk.