Two male industrial workers exposed to silica dust

Two male industrial workers who were inside a West Virginia ceramics factory, Public Domain Picture by CDC

From the day we’re born, taking a deep breath is something we all take for granted.  Silica in an industrial environment is common place.

Adults breathe 12 – 20 times a minute when they are resting.

As humans, we take between 17,000 – 30,000 breaths a day, and the total length of the airways in our lungs is estimated to be 1491 miles (2,400 km.) The equivalent of Denver, Colorado to New York City, NY in travel! However, every breath you take has the potential to cause silicosis.  Especially if you work in an environment where you are exposed to respirable crystalline silica (RCS).

What is silica?

Silica is a fundamental component of soil, sand, granite and many other minerals and is found in many places on Earth. The most common form of silica is Quartz (the other two have cristobalite and tridymite). All three forms create breathable particles when workers chip, cut, drill or grind objects containing silica.

Related article:  OSHA Publishes Silica Standard FAQ

Silica, is a primary component of the Earth’s crust, is present in a wide range of industrial and non-industrial environments and consumer products (including many cosmetics and cat litter).

The breathing of the silica dust generated from these activities can have a devastating effect on health, which can cause lung cancer and silicosis.

When we talk about the dangers of silica, the word “silicosis” immediately comes to mind.

Silicosis itself tends to be linked to mining. The weakening lung disease, caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust, has flourished in medical, political and social policy responses and has captured the public imagination expressed in popular culture, from mining ballads to representative art.

There are legitimate reasons for this – not least the massive harm to the lungs caused by the disease.  Silicosis has precedence of being a dangerous occupational disease and has made its mark in the mining industry in the global economy.

However, when it comes to silicosis, the mining industry is not the full story, and silicosis is not the primary disease when it comes to silica risks.

Since the 1990s, medical science has re-evaluated the potential role of silica in triggering inflammatory diseases, autoimmune diseases which include systemic lupus erythematosus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, and sarcoidosis. Although it was previously thought to be harmful only when inhaled in the form of dust, the question now arises whether exposure to silica in other forms can also be risky.

The road from safety to occupational health, industrial hygiene and well-being may be a long and winding road, but as practitioners, we get the hierarchy of control measures. If we all took the time to consider RCS and whether our existing control measures were designed to ensure routine maintenance and control of RCS, we would each contribute to reducing the number of people dying of silicosis and keep the worker safe.




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