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  • Writer's pictureRebekah McCutcheon


Updated: Feb 17

What is Silica?

Silica dust, known as crystalline silica, is a fine particulate matter composed of very small crystalline particles of silicon dioxide SiO2. Getting scientific, ‘silica’ is a chemical compound formed from silicon and oxygen atoms. It comes in two forms: hazardous crystalline, or non-hazardous amorphous. And it is crystalline silica that causes all the trouble.

Crystalline silica is one of the most abundant minerals on earth, found in numerous naturally occurring materials such as rock, sand, stone, clay, and gravel.

Fun Fact

It is estimated that over 90% of the Earth's crust is composed of silicate minteral, this makes silicon the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust after oxygen.

Like asbestos, if left undisturbed, these minerals are relatively safe. It is the quartz in disturbed silica dust that is most harmful when breathed in.

Due to silicas versatility and strength it is used in a range of industries.

Occupations that tend to have the greatest exposure include:

  • miners

  • construction workers

  • tunnel workers

  • engineers

You may be exposed to silica dust if your work involves:

  • earth moving, excavation and drilling plant operations

  • clay and stone processing machine operations

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  • paving and surfacing

  • mining, quarrying and mineral ore treating processes

  • tunnelling

  • construction labouring activities

  • demolition work

  • brick, concrete or stone cutting; especially using dry methods

  • abrasive blasting

  • foundry casting

  • mineral ore-treating processes

  • sand blasting or casting making and installing composite (engineered or manufactured) stone countertops

  • breaking, crushing, grinding or milling material containing silica dust

  • manufacture of glass, ceramics, brick, concrete, tile, metals or machinery

Distinguishing Hazardous Particles

Inhalation of Respirable Crystaline Silica (RCS) aka silica dust poses significant health risks. The ultra fine dust particles are transparent, so the level of visible dust is not a good indicator of the risk to the worker, these particles have the characteristic of remaining in the air for extended periods or time, sometimes lasting for hours.

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Bases on an average eight hour work day, the madatory limit for silica dust exposure in Australia is 0.05mg/m3, some states have revised this limit and lowered it to 0.025mg/m3. You can read more about Workplace Exposure Standards (WES) for airborne contaminants from Safe Work Australia.

Inhalable particles: Inhalable particles are those that are generally larger in size, typically with a diameter less than 100 micrometres (100 μm). These particles are capable of being inhaled into the nose and mouth during normal breathing. However, due to their size, they usually do not penetrate deep into the lungs and are trapped in the upper respiratory tract, including the nasal passages, throat, and trachea. Inhalable particles can come from sources like dust, pollen, mold spores and larger droplets.

Respirable particles: Respirable particles are much smaller in size, typically with a diameter less than 10 micrometres (smaller than 2.5 µm). These particles are fine enough to be carried deep into the lungs and can reach the alveoli, which are tiny air sacs in the lungs where gas exchange occurs. Respirable particles pose a greater health risk as they can penetrate the body’s natural defences in the upper respiratory tract and can enter the bloodstream, causing potential systemic effects. Sources of respirable particles include fine duct (RCS) smoke, aerosols and certain pollutants.

Understanding the distinction between inhalable and respirable particles is crucial in assessing their potential health implications and implementing appropriate measures to mitigate exposure. Respiratory protection and workplace safety measures are designed considering these particle sizes to ensure the well-being of individuals exposed to various environments and occupational settings.

Health Risks Associated with Silicosis

Over time, exposure to silica dust can lead to a range of respiratory and other health problems including:

Silicosis: An incurable lung disease caused by the accumulation of silica dust in the lungs, leading to inflammation and scarring, making it difficult to breathe. Your lungs become debilitated and cannot exchange oxygen, it is like you are suffocating slowly.

Lung Cancer: Prolonged exposure to silica dust increases the risk of developing lung cancer.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Silica dust exposure can contribute to chronic bronchitis and emphysema, collectively known as COPD.

Tuberculosis: (TB): Silica dust can weaken the immune system and increase susceptibility to tuberculosis.

Kidney failure: Prolonged exposure to silica dust increases the risk of developing chronic kidney failure.

Arthritis: (Rheumatoid arthritis &scleroderma) hardeding and tightening of the skin as well as inflamation of th ejoints, this can lad t many other health issues.

Types of Silicosis

The 3 common types of silicosis are:

  • chronic silicosis — exposure to silica dust for more than 10 years

  • accelerated silicosis — exposure to silica dust for 3 to 10 years

  • acute silicosis — develops within weeks or months of exposure to silica dust

The main symptoms of silicosis are:

  • A persistent cough

  • Shortness of breath

  • Weakness and fatigue

Unlike Asbestosis which can take up to 10-20 years to present in the body and cause adverse health effects, Silicosis can cause serious health risks in as little as a few months or even weeks. Like Asbestosis, there is no cure, only ways to manage living with the disea

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se once diagnosed, although the sad reality is diagnosis is a death sentence.

This is why silica has been dubbed the new asbestos.

A Current Affair covered a story on Karl Hansen a father of 5 in 2019 about living with Silicosis, it has sadly taken a couple of years and a lot of advocating from many stakeholders along with the Australian Unions calling for tougher mandates on working conditions. Safe Work Australia also summoned the public on how to best manage this issue here in Australian workplaces.

With recent studies suggesting that over 100,000 Australian workers will suffer from silicosis due to current workplace condiitons. This is an overwhelming and tragic estimation in today's day and age.

Safety Control Measures in Australia

In Australia, more stringent safety measures and regulations are in place to mitigate exposure to silica dust and protect workers. These measures incuse:

Workplace Exposure Standards: Safe Work Australia sets workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants, including crystalline silica dust. The PCBU and employers must ensure workers’ exposure to silica dust is below these specified standards.

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Hierarchy of Controls: The hierarchy of controls emphasizes prioritising measures for

elimination, substitution, engineering, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Education and Training: Employers are responsible for providing comprehensive training and education to workers about the hazards or silica dust, safe work practices, proper usage of PPE and emergency response procedures.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Workers are provided with appropriate PPE including respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to reduce the inhalation of RCS and other airborne contaminates.

Regular Monitoring and Testing: Employers should conduct regular air monitoring to assess silica dust levels in the workplace and ensure compliance with exposure standards. Fit testing for respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is also crucial.

Medical Surveillance: Periodic health monitoring and medical examinations for workers exposed to silica dust are essential to detect any sings of related health issues.

Compliance with Regulations: Employers must comply with state and national regulations such as the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act to ensure a safe and healthy work environment regarding silica dust exposure.

The Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH) have a great webinar on Managing Exposure to RCS across Australian Workplaces and you can watch that here.

By strictly adhering to these safety measures and educating workers on the risks associated with RCS, Australia aims to minimize the impact of exposure and protect the well-being of individuals working in industries where silica dust is prevalent.

What I love most about Australia is our laid back “she’ll be right mate” attitude. Often our carefree approach may lead to minimising this catastrophic workplace illness by thinking “it won’t happen to me". As a whole, we need to do better to look after ourselves and one another and create healthier and safer working environments for anyone potentially exposed to this deadly dust.

All workers deserve to go home safely and should not have to worry about being exposed to an occupational workplace illness based on their chosen career paths.

At Fit Test Australia Pty Ltd, we are passionate about workplace health and safety and caring for your lungs because every breath you take matters.

Your health and safety is our priority

Call: 0403 064 064

FTA fit test Melbourne Victoria and Sydney NSW 

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