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Managing Exposure to Crystalline Silica

Dangerous silica dust can be formed on site from concrete cutting, grinding or polishing and using power tools on stone and manufactured benchtops. Breathing the silica dust can result in irreversible, untreatable diseases, including silicosis and lung cancer.

Some dust particles can be so small that they are not visible; these are referred to as respirable particles. Respirable silica dust particles are those that are small enough to breathe in and penetrate deep into the lungs causing permanent damage that can lead to serious illness or death.

Each country publishes exposure standards for airborne contaminants in the workplace. In Australia, the exposure standard for crystalline silica dust (listed under Quartz (respirable dust)) is 0.05mg/m3 as a TWA (time-weighted average) airborne concentration over 8 hours. In the US, the Department of Labor says the action level is  (25 μg/m3 as an 8-hour time-weighted average) while the permissible exposure limit is (50 μg/m3 as an 8-hour time-weighted average).

An 8-hour time-weighted average exposure standard is the average airborne concentration of a particular substance permitted over an 8-hour working day and 5-day working week. The workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica is based on the levels found in a person’s breathing zone, outside of any respiratory protective equipment that may be in use.

Employers are required to ensure employee exposure does not exceed this standard.

SafeWork Australia offers these steps to minimize the risk;

Managing risk and worker exposures to silica can be achieved by selecting and implementing measures using the hierarchy of controls:

  • substitution such as sourcing composite stone benchtops with a lower percentage of silica
  • isolation of the hazard – using principles of safe work design to designate areas for tasks that generate dust and appropriate worker positioning during these tasks, using enclosures and automation to conduct dust generating tasks
  • engineering controls that minimise the risk of exposure to generated dust, for example, local exhaust ventilation, water suppression (wet cutting) or using tools with dust collection attachments
  • should a risk still remain; administrative controls, including good housekeeping policies, shift rotations and modifying cutting sequences
  • should a risk still remain; personal protective equipment including appropriate respiratory equipment (generally a minimum of a P2 efficiency half face respirator) and work clothing that does not collect dust.

Australian made CleanSpace Respirators, meet and exceed the minimum requirements for respiratory protection, with a P3 filter. Unlike other Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs), CleanSpace Respirators are easy to put on (in under ten seconds) and don’t have heavy belts or hoses. They also deliver cool fresh on the face, and don’t create moisture and fogging.

“One of the main reasons people go unprotected is because of low compliance. If masks are uncomfortable or not quick and easy to put on then it simply doesn’t get used,” said CleanSpace Technology CEO, Dr Alex Birrell.

CleanSpace Technology has designed and developed several respirators for various industries. CleanSpace Ultra is IP Rated 66, water tolerant, making it perfect for anyone wet-cutting stone or concrete. CleanSpace EX is instrinsically safe, certified for use in potentially explosive environments, and CS2 is for use where water tolerance or instrinsic safety is not required.

“As Australia’s only respirator company, we are proud to be supporting all those on the frontline in industry and healthcare stay protected from airborne contaminants,” said Dr Birrell.

* WorkSafe Victoria has gone above the national standard and recommends that employees are not exposed to levels above 0.02mg/m3 as a TWA. This is a precautionary measure to prevent silicosis, and to minimise the risk of lung cancer.