Crystalline silica is a common mineral found in many naturally occurring materials and used in many industrial products and at construction sites. Materials like sand, concrete, stone and mortar contain crystalline silica. Crystalline silica is also used to make products such as glass, pottery, ceramics, bricks, concrete and artificial stone. Industrial sand used in certain operations, such as foundry work and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), is also a source of crystalline silica exposure. Amorphous silica, such as silica gel, is not crystalline silica.
Inhaling very small (“respirable”) crystalline silica particles, causes multiple diseases, including silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can lead to disability and death. Respirable crystalline silica also causes lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease.
Around 2.3 million workers are exposed to crystalline silica on the job. Simply being near sand or other silica-containing materials is not hazardous. The hazard exists when specific activities create respirable dust that is released into the air. Respirable crystalline silica – very small particles typically at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand found on beaches or playgrounds – is generated by high-energy operations like cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling and crushing stone, rock, concrete, brick, block and mortar; or when using industrial sand. Activities such as abrasive blasting with sand; sawing brick or concrete; sanding or drilling into concrete walls; grinding mortar; manufacturing brick, concrete blocks, or ceramic products; and cutting or crushing stone generates respirable dust.
Employers must use engineering controls and work practices as the primary way keep exposures at or below the PEL.
- Engineering controls include wetting down work operations or using local exhaust ventilation (such as vacuums) to keep silica-containing dust out of the air and out of workers’ lungs. Another control method that may work well is enclosing an operation (“process isolation”).
- Examples of work practices to control silica exposures include wetting down dust before sweeping it up or using the water flow rate recommended by the manufacturer for a tool with water controls.
- Respirators are only allowed when engineering and work practice controls cannot maintain exposures at or below the PEL. For construction, the standard includes Table 1, a list of common construction tasks along with exposure control methods and work practices that work well for those tasks and can be used to comply with the requirements of the standard.
Respirators are not as protective as engineering controls, and they aren’t always as practical either. Unless respirators are selected for each worker, individually fitted and periodically refitted, and regularly maintained, and unless filters and other parts are replaced as necessary, workers will continue to be exposed to silica. In many cases, workers using only respirators would also have to wear more extensive and expensive protection. Even when respirators are selected, fitted, and maintained correctly, they must be worn consistently and correctly by workers to be effective. Respirators can also be uncomfortable, especially in hot weather, and cannot be used by some workers.
Employers are required to comply with all obligations of the standard (except methods of sample analysis) by September 23, 2017. Employers are required to comply with methods of sample analysis by June 23, 2018.