Crystalline silica has been labelled the 'new asbestos'. Crystalline silica, its use in engineered stone and the risks posed by respirable silica dust, has been making headlines in Australian media recently. November is Asbestos Awareness Month so we wanted to give you information on what Crystalline silica is and what are the risks?
What is crystalline silica and how is it used?
Crystalline silica is a major mineral component of materials like sand, granite, mortar, soil, and concrete. The most common type of crystalline silica is quartz, and it’s widely used in composite stone products.
You’ve probably noticed the trend of engineered stone benchtops in kitchens over the last decade or so. The appeal is fairly obvious: they look good, they’re durable and relatively heat-resistant. But, engineered stone can pose some pretty serious risks to the health of those workers involved in its manufacture.
So, what are the risks associated with crystalline silica?
Crystalline silica has been referred to as the ‘new asbestos’ due to the harmful effects of silica dust. When engineered stone is cut, crushed, polished, ground or sawn, microscopic respirable dust particles are released into the air. If a worker inhales these particles, they can enter the lungs and cause silicosis, lung cancer and the development of other diseases including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
What are the statistics?
According to the Cancer Council, it’s estimated that 230 people develop lung cancer each year as a result of past exposure to silica dust at work. Those workers involved in the fabrication process of engineered stone and/or working over longer time periods are at a greater risk of developing cancer due to their prolonged exposure to the dust.
How can risks of silica dust be addressed?
There are certain measures that can help to mitigate the risks of workers inhaling silica dust generated by working with engineered stone. These include dust control measures such as:
- Water suppression functions on tools and equipment
- Exhaust ventilation systems, including hand tools with dust extraction elements
- Distancing workers from dust-generating activity where possible
- Providing facilities for thorough hand-washing and clothes laundering/decontamination
- Implementing rigorous cleaning routines in workspaces that contain silica dust
- Providing workers with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) including gumboots, waterproof jackets or aprons
- Providing RPE (Respiratory Protective Equipment) including Powered Air Purifying Respirators, as well as instigating fit tests for these apparatuses and ensuring workers are trained in their correct use
As well as dust control measures, how else can the risks of respirable silica dust be managed by employers?
Requirements for employers vary between states and territories, but Safe Work Australia has issued a number of guidelines for working with engineered stone. One of these guidelines is a workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica that must not be exceeded: 0.1 mg/m3 (eight-hour time weighted average).
Other measures that help to combat the damage caused by respirable silica dust include:
- Air monitoring to assess dust levels
- Worker Awareness training
- Health monitoring for at-risk workers.
To find out more, please visit the site applicable to your state or territory below or visit https://asbestosawareness.com.au/
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