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    Silica Dust

    5 things you need to know about silica dust

    Published on September 14th, 2022 | by Matthew Albutt

    Silica is a chemical compound formed from silicon and oxygen atoms. It comes in two forms; hazardous crystalline, or non-hazardous amorphous – it’s crystalline silica that causes all the trouble. Crystalline silica is one of the most abundant minerals on earth and is found in many naturally occurring materials such as rock, sand, stone, clay and gravel. For example, sandstone contains more than 70% silica, whereas granite might contain 15-30%. Silica is also a major part of construction materials such as bricks, tiles, concrete, and mortar.

    How does silica become harmful to health?

    You generate dust from these materials during many common construction tasks. These include cutting, drilling, grinding, and polishing. Some of this dust is fine enough to get deep into your lungs. The fine dust is known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and is too fine to see with normal lighting. It is commonly called silica or silica dust.

    We take a look at 5 things you need to know about silica dust:

    1. It’s the second biggest killer in construction after asbestos – According to the HSE, regularly breathing construction dust can cause respiratory diseases like lung cancer, asthma, emphysema, and silicosis.
    2. Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is present in construction site materials – Cutting, drilling, grinding, sanding, and polishing can expose you to silica dust. Some of this dust is fine and can get deep into your lungs. Many materials used on a construction site will contain silica.
    3. It doesn’t take much dust to do damage – Even a small amount of RCS can do long-term damage, particularly over a prolonged period of exposure. The workplace exposure limit is 0.1mg over eight hours.
    4. You must control silica dust at the source – Choosing the correct tools and extraction is a must. This can be used in conjunction with wet cutting and wet sweeping, which will wet the dust and cause it to fall to the ground.
    5. Silica dust can remain in the air for 12 days – The dust is so small that it hovers in the air for almost 2 weeks, even if we can’t see it.

    How big of a health risk is silica dust?

    Silica is the biggest risk to construction workers after asbestos. Heavy and prolonged exposure to RCS can cause lung cancer and other serious respiratory diseases. In addition to the risks from lung cancer, silica is also linked to other serious lung diseases:

    • Silicosiscan cause severe breathing problems and increases the risk of lung infections. Silicosis usually follows exposure to RCS over many years, but extremely high exposures can cause acute silicosis more quickly.
    • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of lung diseases including bronchitis and emphysema. It results in severe breathlessness, prolonged coughing and chronic disability. It can be very disabling and is a leading cause of death. Around 4,000 deaths are estimated annually due to COPD resulting from past workplace exposures. Construction workers are a significant ‘at-risk’ group within this.

    How can silica dust be prevented or controlled?

    Both employers and employees must fully understand what they are working with and what risks are involved. It is the employer’s responsibility to carry out risk assessments and implement effective control measures to mitigate the exposure of silica dust to employees. This legal responsibility comes under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH).

    Looking for more information?

    The HSE has information on silica dust which can be found on their website here. The information is only informative and will not make you compliant. In order to be compliant with the law you will need a competent person who understands the Regulation and can carry out the risk assessments involved.

    A competent person can be someone who looks after health and safety for your company or a third party company, such as Agility Risk and Compliance, to act as your competent person. Give a member of the team a call on 01527 571 611 to discuss what you’re looking for and see how we can help.

    • What are the most common causes of accidents when working at height

      Roof work is high risk and falls from roofs, through fragile roofs and fragile roof lights are one of the most common causes of workplace death and serious injury. As well as in construction, these accidents can also occur on roofs of factories, warehouses and farm buildings when roof repair work or cleaning is being carried out.

    • What precautions should you consider when working at height:

      By taking a sensible, pragmatic approach when considering precautions for work at height. Factors to weigh up include the height of the task; the duration and frequency; and the condition of the surface being worked on. There will also be certain low-risk situations where common sense tells you no particular precautions are necessary.

    • Can you avoid working at height in the first place?

      Do as much work as possible from the ground. Some practical examples include:

      • Using extendable tools from ground level to remove the need to climb a ladder
      • Installing cables at ground level
      • Lowering a lighting mast to ground level ground level assembly of edge protection
      • Cleaning windows with water fed poles

      If you can’t avoid working from height read the next section ‘Prevent’.

    • Can you prevent a fall from occurring?

      You can do this by:

      • Using an existing place of work that is already safe, eg a non-fragile roof with a permanent perimeter guardrail or, if not
      • Using work equipment to prevent people from falling

      Some practical examples of collective protection when using an existing place of work:

      • A concrete flat roof with existing edge protection, or guarded mezzanine floor, or plant or machinery with fixed guard rails around it

      Some practical examples of collective protection using work equipment to prevent a fall:

      • Mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs) such as scissor lifts
      • Tower scaffolds
      • Scaffolds

      An example of personal protection using work equipment to prevent a fall:

      • Using a work restraint (travel restriction) system that prevents a worker getting into a fall position.

      If you can’t prevent a fall from occurring read the next section ‘Minimise’.

    • Can you minimise the distance and/or consequences of a fall?

      If the risk of a person falling remains, you must take sufficient measures to minimise the distance and/or consequences of a fall.

      Practical examples of collective protection using work equipment to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall:

      • Safety nets and soft landing systems, eg air bags, installed close to the level of the work

      An example of personal protection used to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall:

      • Industrial rope access, eg working on a building façade fall arrest system using a high anchor point
    • What do you need to consider when planning work at height?

      The following are all requirements in law that you need to consider when planning and undertaking work at height.

      You must:

      • Take account of weather conditions that could compromise worker safety.
      • Check that the place (eg a roof) where work at height is to be undertaken is safe.
      • Each place where people will work at height needs to be checked every time, before use.
      • Stop materials or objects from falling or, if it is not reasonably practicable to.
      • Prevent objects falling, take suitable and sufficient measures to make sure no one can be injured, eg use exclusion zones to keep people away or mesh on scaffold to stop materials such as bricks falling off.
      • Store materials and objects safely so they won’t cause injury if they are disturbed or collapse.
      • Plan for emergencies and rescue, eg agree a set procedure for evacuation.
      • Think about foreseeable situations and make sure employees know the emergency procedures. Don’t just rely entirely on the emergency services for rescue in your plan.

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