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Best Ways to Limit Silica Dust Exposure on Job Sites

More than 2 million construction workers and nearly 300,000 industry workers in the United States are exposed to Silica Dust on the job. Workers that inhale crystalline silica are at increased risk of developing silica-related diseases that can be debilitating or even fatal. Protective steps must be taken to prevent, reduce and measure exposure levels to silica dust to ensure the safety of all workers.

A written exposure control plan should be part of the workplace safety and health program for any organization that has employees that could potentially be exposed to silica dust.

Worker Using Portable Grinder to Cut Stone, Creating Dust in the Air

Crystalline Silica is a common mineral found in the ground. When products or materials are harvested, manufactured or produced using natural elements from the Earth, these materials may then contain silica.

Common work materials found on job sites that may contain crystalline silica include sand, stone, rock, concrete, brick, mortar and block. Silica is also found in products like glass, pottery and ceramics.

OSHA Construction Standard 1926 Subpart Z Section 1153 and OSHA General Industry Standard 1910 Subpart Z Section 1053 both cover Respirable Crystalline Silica

Respirable crystalline silica dust is created during normal construction, industry and manufacturing activities when cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling or crushing any material that has silica like concrete, brick and stone. These super-fine silica particles are released into the air and workers are in danger of inhaling these silica dust and developing serious health conditions as a result.

Worker Using Grinder on Granite with No Respiratory Protection
Granite may contain up to 45-50% silica

Typical construction, manufacturing and processing activities that release silica dust into the air include:

  • sand blasting, abrasive blasting and tunneling operations
  • using masonry saws, grinders drills or jackhammers
  • operating vehicle-mounted drilling rigs
  • sawing into brick or concrete
  • using handheld powered chipping tools
  • milling and operating crushing machines
  • drilling into concrete walls
  • grinding mortar
  • using heavy equipment for demolition
  • cutting or crushing stone
  • manufacturing glass, pottery, or ceramics
  • manufacturing brick, concrete, structural clay products or stone countertops
  • manufacturing artificial stone, jewelry or porcelain products
  • using industrial sand in foundry work and hydraulic fracturing
OSHA Construction Standard 1926.1153(d)(1) and OSHA General Industry Standard 1910.1053(c) Permissible exposure limit (PEL). The employer shall ensure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of respirable crystalline silica in excess of 50 μg/m3, calculated as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA).
A worker uses pressurize air to clean out debris from the joints in the concrete.

Workers who inhale silica dust particles are at an increased risk of developing certain illnesses including:

  • Silicosis - an incurable lung disease
  • Lung Cancer
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Kidney Disease
  • Tuberculosis
OSHA Construction Standard 1926.1153(d)(3)(i) and OSHA General Industry Standard 1910.1053(f)(1) Engineering and work practice controls. The employer shall use engineering and work practice controls to reduce and maintain employee exposure to respirable crystalline silica to or below the PEL, unless the employer can demonstrate that such controls are not feasible. Wherever such feasible engineering and work practice controls are not sufficient to reduce employee exposure to or below the PEL, the employer shall nonetheless use them to reduce employee exposure to the lowest feasible level and shall supplement them with the use of respiratory protection.

A dust mask is not enough! Respiratory protection is only permitted when other dust control measures are not sufficient.

  1. Effective dust control methods must be implemented to prevent silica dust from being released into the air.
  2. When dust control methods do not fully control the silica dust, then the amount of silica dust that workers are exposed to should be determined.
  3. Workers must be protected from silica dust, with dust controls and safer work methods, when it is measured at or above the level of 50 μg/m3, averaged over an 8-hour day.
  4. Respirators must be provided to workers when dust controls and safer work methods can not effectively keep exposure under 50 μg/m3, averaged over an 8-hour day.
Industry Worker Using Ventilation System While Working

All employers who have workers that are exposed to silica dust must establish the following and affected employees must be aware of and assist in effectively implementing these requirements.

  • A written exposure control plan must be implemented that identifies silica-exposure tasks and the methods that will be used to protect workers.
  • A competent person must be designated to implement the written exposure control plan.
  • Housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica dust must be restricted.
  • Medical exams must be offered to employees every three years for employees who are required to wear a respirator for 30 days or more per year.
  • All workers that may be exposed to silica dust must be provided training on the health effects of silica exposure, the tasks they may encounter that would expose them to silica and the ways they can limit their exposure.
  • Records must be kept of workers silica exposure and medical exams.

To limit exposure to harmful silica dust, these control methods can provide a safer work environment:

  • Apply water to a saw blade when cutting materials or use tools equipped with an integrated water delivery system.
  • Use tools equipped with shrouds and commercially available dust collection system.
  • Install local ventilation or use vacuums to collect dust.
  • Use enclosures that isolate the work process.
  • Avoid working in dusty work environments whenever possible and wear a respirator when needed/required.
  • Wet dust before sweeping it up or vacuum dust instead of sweeping it.
  • Do not eat or drink near dusty work areas.
  • Park cars and trucks away from the work area so they will not be covered with silica dust.
  • Shower (if possible) and change into clean clothes before leaving the worksite to prevent carrying silica dust away from the work site.

For more information and resources on how to work safely with silica visit silica-safe.org and explore OSHA's silica resources.

Construction Worker Using Water to Reduce Silica Dust While Using Saw to Cut Stone

If Silica Dust is a hazard on the job, it is important that all team members that are exposed to silica dust receive training on how they can protect themselves against exposure.

For more information and resources on how to work safely with silica, visit silica-safe.org and explore OSHA’s silica resources.

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