Silica is found in stone, rock, sand, gravel and clay, and bricks, tiles, concrete and some plastic materials. Engineered materials containing silica, such as composite stone, are used to fabricate kitchen benches and countertops
When these materials are worked on or cut, silica is released as a fine dust.
Depending on factors such as how much dust a worker breathes in and for how long, crystalline silica can cause the following health effects:
- silicosis – a scarring of the lung which can result in a severe shortness of breath. Severe cases can result in complications leading to death. It is fast-acting. It is not reversible — but it is a preventable disease
- lung cancer
- kidney disease
In the past, silicosis was associated with mining, quarrying, drilling and foundry work. Its occurrence in these industries gradually lessened as successful control measures (such as using water to keep dust down) were introduced.
Silicosis is now reappearing, especially where workers cut and shape stone, sandstone or manufactured stone to make kitchen, bathroom and commercial benchtops and other products.
Other tasks putting workers at risk include sandblasting, bricklaying, cutting bricks and tiles.
Those working in demolition, construction and mining are also at risk.
Home renovators should also follow guidelines to reduce their risk of inhaling silica dust.
If you’re a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU), you must manage the risks to health and safety associated with tasks that could release silica dust.
You should do a risk assessment for these tasks at your workplace, to:
- identify which workers are at risk of exposure
- determine what sources and processes are causing that risk
- identify if and what kind of control measures should be implemented
- check the effectiveness of your existing control measures.
- Where possible, cutting, grinding, and shaping should be done wet.
- Ventilation and filtration systems should be used to collect silica-containing dust at its source
- PPE should be used as a last resort. Face masks alone are not sufficient to protect workers.
The WHS Regulations 2012 require health monitoring to be done for workers who may be exposed to crystalline silica during their course of their work.