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Most construction workers are familiar with the various hazards they face on job sites, but one lesser-known yet highly significant danger is respirable crystalline silica (RCS).

These fine dust particles can lead to serious lung diseases, including silicosis, lung cancer, and respiratory conditions.

Being aware of the risks associated with exposure to respirable crystalline silica is crucial in ensuring the safety and health of workers in the construction industry.

RCS is dangerous as it’s easy for people to breathe it in, it is difficult to see in normal lighting, and it can remain in the air hours after it becomes airborne.

RCS risks can be generated by tasks such as grinding, cutting, polishing, and crushing materials that contain at least 1% crystalline silica.

Dry sweeping and compressed air can also cause RCS to become airborne.

Silica: Know Your Construction Materials

The first step to any safety strategy is knowing your construction materials, especially when respiratory hazards such as respirable crystalline silica are involved.

The mineral crystalline silica can be found in many construction materials. Concrete, granite, tiles, bricks, and drywall are some of the worst culprits.

It can also be found in places we wouldn’t expect, like grout, rocks, and soil.

Even the ground under our feet can contain silica.

But then, it gets complicated.

How?

These materials aren’t hazardous if they aren’t disturbed.

Once these materials are cut, ground, or drilled – the problems begin.

The processes create dust that is small enough to be inhaled.

This dust can become lodged in lungs and cause severe health problems over time.

The dust that these materials create is the real danger. This is why certain construction activities, such as sandblasting and stone cutting, rock drilling, concrete mixing, and grinding, are to be avoided.

 

What is the key message here?

Know Your Construction Materials. 

Be aware that silica can form during these activities.

This is an important step to reducing RCS risks, and ultimately keeping workers healthy and safe.

Regulations and Guidelines for Silica Awareness

According to Safe Work Australia, under the Model WHS Regulations, PCBUs specific responsibilities include managing the risks of health and safety when handling, producing, and storing dangerous chemicals, including silica.

PCBU’s responsibilities also include monitoring workers’ health and ensuring that the workplace exposure standards for crystalline silica are not exceeded.

By selecting and implementing controls using the hierarchy, it is possible to manage risks and reduce worker exposures.

  • Substitutions, for example, choosing a product without crystalline silica on a worktop.
  • Use of enclosures and automation for dust-generating tasks.
  • Engineering controls that minimise the risk of exposure, such as local exhaust ventilation, wet cutting (water suppression), or tools with dust-collection attachments.
  • Administrative controls include good housekeeping policies and shift rotations, as well as modifying the cutting sequences.
  • Personal protective equipment, including respiratory protective equipment that is appropriate (generally at least a half-face respirator with a P2 rating) and clothing that doesn’t collect dust.

The Prohibition of Engineered Stones

Commonwealth, state, and territory WHS ministers have accepted Safe Work Australia’s recommendations to ban the use of all engineered stones in order to protect workers’ health and safety.

Safe Work Australia will amend the model WHS Regulations to prohibit a PCBU from performing work or to direct or allow a worker to perform work on or with engineered stone. This prohibition does not apply to engineered stones installed before the prohibition.

Safe Work Australia has developed a national framework for ensuring that anyone who works with engineered stones installed before the ban does so in a safe manner.

The ban will come into effect in July 2024.

Silica Awareness in the Construction Industry

Any construction company should prioritise creating a Silica Awareness Program that is effective and efficient.

These steps will help you create a program to educate and protect your employees against the dangers of Respirable Crystalline Silica.

Step 1: Create a Taskforce: Assemble a task force consisting of key stakeholders such as site supervisors and occupational health and safety officials, along with workers themselves. This group will help shape the Silica Awareness Program’s policies, guidelines, and strategies.

Step 2: Risk assessment: Identify the operations that could lead to silica contamination, evaluate current controls, and identify where additional measures or improvements are required.

Step 3: Training and Education: Inform employees of the dangers and effects of RCS. You can do this through regular safety meetings or by specialised training.

Step 4: Prevention Strategies: Implement preventive strategies such as dust control strategies, proper methods for handling materials containing silica, personal protective equipment (PPE), health surveillance programs, and appropriate dust control techniques.

Step 5: Open Communication:  Maintain open lines of communication between all parties to ensure that safety practices are reinforced and policies are adhered to. Workers should be empowered to express their concerns and suggestions about safety issues.

Step 6: Regular Evaluation: Perform regular evaluations of the program to determine its effectiveness. Consider the feedback of workers, changes to work processes, available technology, and new information regarding hazards and risks associated with silica exposure.

The education of workers is crucial in reducing RCS exposure.

It’s not enough to have the right tools and strict rules.

It is about creating an environment where safety is valued, and a culture of knowledge is promoted.

This includes recognising and addressing the risks posed by RCS and other materials, as well as the prevention and management methods.

Other Protective Measures

1 – Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is the first line of defence for your construction crew against RCS.

Full-coverage respirators, full-coverage face masks, and even special clothing are all available to keep silica from settling on the workers’ clothes.

To filter out silica dust, choose N95-rated or higher masks and replace them regularly.

Remember that PPE is not a solution you can just set and forget. It is just as important to train your crew in the proper maintenance and use of PPE as it is to invest in high-quality equipment.

2 – Housekeeping practices – We’re not advocating daily Spring cleaning. Regular site cleaning and maintenance are crucial to controlling RCS.

For example, water can be an effective tool. Dampening surfaces and using tools that are powered by water can help reduce dust generated during drilling or cutting.

If water isn’t an option, vacuuming using approved dust collection systems will help stop silica from escaping into the workplace.

3 – Technology for silica reduction – Dust control systems on machines and tools can make a big difference in the reduction of silica. Technology can save lives. From integrated water delivery systems to HEPA-filtered vacuum systems to remove dust at its source, technology is a lifesaver.

Where can I enrol in silica awareness training program?

AlertForce’s Silica Awareness Training is an in-depth study of the dangers associated with silica.

It provides participants with vital knowledge that will help them navigate safely through environments where silica can be a problem.

This course is designed for workers and employers who may be exposed to silica dust.

You will learn about the different types of silica and the health risks associated with crystalline silica.

We focus on real-world application so that you are not only familiar with the theory of silica safety but also competent in practical safety protocols.

All our trainings are designed in accordance with the most recent safety protocols and guidelines.

Enroll in our Silica Awareness Training to improve your knowledge, protect yourself and your co-workers, and create a safer working environment.

This course will provide you with the following key insights:

  • Silica source identification: Familiarise yourself with the many sources of silica and their environments. Also, learn how they react with different materials and equipment.
  • Health surveillance programs: Explore the physiological effects silica can have on your health, from respiratory conditions to chronic illnesses, and learn the importance of early intervention.
  • Safety protocols: Using a combination of theoretical knowledge, and practical demonstrations, you will master the art and science of implementing robust measures to reduce and manage exposure risk.

Regulatory Standards: Stay up to date with the latest safety regulations, guidelines, and standards that govern exposure to silica. This will ensure that you are always in compliance and informed.

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