About 2.3 million professionals face exposure to crystalline silica at work. In 2016, OSHA updated the exposure regulations for silica for the first time since 1971. Despite the amendment, two years later, NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) reported on the largest cluster of black lung disease among active coal miners. The following year, California identified more than 70 cases of silicosis in countertop fabricators. Ten of those fabricators, between the ages of 30-40, died from advanced lung disease.
The situation is at an all-time high in L.A. County, where elected officials are considering a potential ban on selling and installing “silica-based engineered stone.” This substance, often called artificial or imitation stone, is composed of crushed quartz, made with up to ninety percent silica dust, held together with resin.
According to the Associated Press, “Silica dust is 20 times more toxic than coal dust and causes severe forms of black lung disease even after a few years of exposure.”
Silica dust can cause significant and long-term damage and is linked to many serious health conditions, such as silicosis, progressive massive fibrosis, lung cancer, and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, commonly called “black lung” disease. Black lung disease is a broad term encompassing progressive massive fibrosis, silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney ailments.
Are You At Risk?
Silica is everywhere. For most of us, it is harmless—a naturally occurring mineral found in sand, stone and other substances. For industrial workers, this seemingly innocuous substance is lethal.
The most common form of silica is quartz, found in granite, concrete, and sandstone. Silica becomes toxic through various construction and manufacturing processes, including cutting, grinding, drilling, and crushing materials like stone, concrete, and brick.
The dust released during this work, respirable crystalline silica, is 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, making it undetectable and easy to inhale. Once inside the body, the ultrafine particles reach deep into the lungs, causing irreparable damage, including:
- progressive massive fibrosis
- lung cancer
- coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (also known as black lung disease)
- and other debilitating, incurable diseases
Occupations at risk for developing respiratory issues, lung disease and silicosis include but aren’t limited to the following:
- Construction: anyone who engages in activities that require drilling, cutting, or grinding materials containing silica, such as concrete or stone, is at risk.
- Coal mining: miners are often exposed to silica dust while extracting minerals from the earth.
- Sandblasters: workers using sand to clean surfaces often release a large amount of silica dust into the air, putting them at risk of inhaling the tiny particles.
- Quarry workers: those using heavy machinery to dig or drill stone, sand, slate and other materials from quarries and mines release silica dust into the air.
- Transportation: railway and roadway workers encounter silica in several ways, including ballast and sanding activities.
History Repeats Itself Yet Again
Silica dust has silently crept into the lungs of unsuspecting workers for centuries, cutting short the lives of countless workers. Here’s a brief timeline:
- 16th century: Georgius Agricola, the German expert in metals and minerals, noted silicosis among tradespeople, specifically miners.
- 1700s: Fast forward to the 1700s, and Bernardino Ramazzini, known as the Father of Occupational Hygiene, reignited discussions about the threat of silicosis and the plight of stone-cutters afflicted by this ailment.
- 1930s: The U.S. saw another painful chapter in the silicosis saga during the 1930s “Hawk’s Nest Tunnel” tragedy in West Virginia. Out of nearly 2,900 workers on this project, over half worked inside the tunnel, with the dust claiming the lives of at least 764.
- 1938: The Department of Labor releases a public service announcement, still viewable on YouTube, “Stop Silicosis,” to warn against the hazards of silica dust.
- 2000: The U.S. government categorizes silica as a known human carcinogen.
- 2013 to 2017: More than 400 cases of advanced progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), a severe form of CWP, were reported solely from three clinics in the Appalachia region.
- 2016: OSHA issues new silica exposure rules for mining and construction.
- 2018: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) disclosed the largest observed cluster of black lung disease (coal worker pneumoconiosis, or CWP) among active coal miners in years.
- 2019: California identifies more than 70 cases of silicosis in countertop fabricators. Out of these cases, ten fabricators aged 30-40 have died.
- 2022: The U.S. Department of Labor’s MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) introduced an amendment to reduce miners’ exposure to silica and provide more stringent medical testing and oversight. The requirements for respiratory protection are also amended to account for technological developments.
- 2023: Exposés continue to document the devastating effect of silicosis on the lives of workers in the United States and beyond. The prevalence of black lung disease among miners with 25+ years on the job has exceeded 10% nationwide.
A Modern-Day Tragedy Continues To Unfold
Take the story of Rodriguez, a 42-year-old worker, one of the first known individuals in the U.S. to fall victim to silicosis due to countertop work. Lured by a better paycheck, he changed jobs, never anticipating the dire consequences. By 2019, he was hooked up to an oxygen tank for six hours a day. Reflecting on his decision, he says, “That change ruined my life. It wasn’t just me. It was the whole company — that they don’t protect their employees.”
Imagine seeing your loved one come home every day covered in white dust. That was Victor. After work, he looked like he’d been in a snowstorm. Even his eyelashes were dust-filled. Most people would brush it off, thinking it’s just part of the job. But that dust was more dangerous than anyone thought. Victor went from a strong guy weighing 230 pounds to only 125 in just two years. His body was ravaged by silicosis. As his wife Miriam recounts, “My mom still cries all the time, even now. And so do I. It is hard for us. A year has passed, but I feel like it happened yesterday. We cannot get over it.”
Silicosis Is Entirely Preventable
In 2023, NBC spoke about silicosis with Arthur Frank, professor of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University. “[Silicosis] is an absolutely horrible, preventable, work-abusive situation that never should have occurred,” said Frank. The coverage also included input from Dr. Jane Fazio, a pulmonary specialist at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, who co-authored a study about the rise of silicosis among young countertop fabricators in California.
Regulations and workplace standards are crucial in preventing silica exposure. Personal protection equipment is also essential. Experts advise following the hierarchy of hazards control system to help prevent exposure to occupational hazards.
- The best way to ensure safety on the job is to remove potential hazards completely. Obviously, this is not always possible.
- When it’s impossible to eliminate a hazard, the next best course of action is to find a safer alternative. Opting for a less hazardous option reduces the overall risk, though similar to elimination, substitution is not always an option.
- Engineering Controls
- Implementing wet methods to reduce dust generation.
- Using local exhaust ventilation to capture and remove dust.
- Administrative Controls
- Regularly measuring the amount of silica dust in the air.
- Ensuring that exposure levels remain below the permissible exposure limit.
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Wear respirators to filter out silica dust.
- Use protective clothing to prevent skin exposure.
Protect Yourself and Prevent Silicosis
Protecting your health and safety is essential if you come into contact with silica dust on the job. If you work for a responsible company, workplace monitoring and engineering controls like wet methods, exhaust ventilation, and the continuous measurement of silica levels will help you stay safe. Still, the final line of defense is you.
When it comes to your health, do not take chances. One of the best ways to protect yourself against silica dust is with a PAPR (powered air-purifying respirator) system. Optrel offers two PAPR systems, each offering unique benefits.
Optrel’s e3000x and Swiss Air PAPR systems
We have two PAPR systems designed to protect against silica dust. Both systems feature a TH3 HEPA filter for superior protection.
The Swiss Air is the most versatile PAPR on the market.
- Wear the Swiss Air with an optrel welding hood, a Clearmaxx grinding shield, or independent of facial protection. (Though facial protection is highly recommended when working in silica-laden environments.)
- Comfortable and lightweight, the backpack-style design allows for freedom of movement and the ability to work in confined spaces.
- The chest-mounted control panel offers easy access to essential controls, including filter and battery status and airflow regulation.
- Automatical airflow calibration.
- No fit test is required. The Swiss Air can even be worn with facial hair.
- Machine washable face mask.
- 14-hour high-performance battery for uninterrupted work sessions.
The e3000x PAPR provides superior protection and unparalleled power.
- The e3000x is the most powerful breathing protection system on the market (up to 240L air/min).
- Up to 18 hours of battery life—2x the industry standard!
- Filters out 99.8% of contaminants with the HEPA filter. Optional gas filter available.
- Easy to use, with a simple 2-button operation, adjustable airflow and automatic airflow calibration.
- Wear the e3000x around the waist, or add the optional shoulder harness.
- Audible & visual low battery and filter alerts.
- Works with optrel’s line of PAPR helmets and grinding shields
Safeguard Against Silica, The Silent Killer
The devastating effects of silicosis are real and have persisted across generations. Waiting for industry regulations to catch up or hoping your company has stringent engineering controls and workplace monitoring is not your only answer. As we acknowledge past tragedies and confront present challenges, change must come at all levels, from policymakers to employers to individual workers. We all play a part in prioritizing health and safety to eradicate this entirely preventable disease. The emphasis on personal responsibility cannot be stressed enough.
Optrel’s Swiss-made PAPR systems offer the highest-quality protection against silica exposure. Personal responsibility is paramount in protecting yourself. If you work with silica dust, now is the time to check out optrel’s PAPR systems.