Silica and Silicosis 101: What you need to know.

13 May 2019

Silica and Silicosis 101: What you need to know.

You may have heard the term Silica being described as ‘the new asbestos,’ in recent years, but what exactly does that mean for those in the flooring industry?

FCIA lay out all the answers below.

What is Silica, and where can it be found?

Crystalline silica is a natural mineral found in substances such as sand, rocks and clay, as well as man-made products like bricks, tiles, surfacing, concrete, mortar and engineered stone. When these materials are manipulated or disturbed (ie: with cutting or drilling) the crystalline silica is released, creating a very fine dust that can be inhaled. This dust is commonly referred to as respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and is an extremely hazardous substance causing many deaths across the world each year[1].

While this mineral can be found in many different construction materials, the amount of crystalline silica in each product can vary greatly.

Examples from Worksafe Victoria include:

  • Brick: 5-15%
  • Concrete: less than 30%
  • Ceramic tiles: 5-45%
  • Reconstituted stone: more than 80%

For the flooring industry, this includes cementitious substances such as some substrate preparation products. If you’re not sure if a product contains crystalline silica, check the safety data sheet (SDS).

Why should those in the flooring industry be mindful of RCS?

When RCS is inhaled, it can lodge deep into the lungs and cause illness and diseases such as silicosis. It can even result in death in some circumstances. Installers in the floor laying industry are particularly vulnerable to these effects, as their work can involve tasks that put them in direct risk.

Some of these tasks include:

  • rinding or mixing silica-containing cementitious materials such as concrete substrate, aggregate or mortar.
  • Manufacturing flooring materials such as ceramics, brick, concrete, tile metals or engineered stone.
  • Dry sweeping up after a task where silica dust has been created.
  • Using power tools to remove substances like paint or rust
  • Performing abrasive blasting
  • Moving earth, eg excavating, mining, quarrying or tunnelling
  • Drilling, cutting, chiselling or sanding silica-containing material
  • Laying, maintaining or replacing ballast
  • Handling, mixing or shovelling dry materials that include silica
  • Using silica, sand or silica-containing products in the manufacturing process of glass and other non-metallic mineral products
  • Using sand as a moulding medium in foundries
  • Using silica flour (a finely ground form of crystalline silica)

What are the possible side effects of RCS inhalation?

There are a variety of negative health concerns that can arise from both long and short term exposure to inhaling RCS. Silicosis (an irreversible stiffening of the lungs) is the most well-known conditions of these and has been compared to asbestosis in terms of its permanent and damaging effects.

Conditions that crystalline silica dust inhalation can cause:

  • silicosis
  • lung cancer
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • kidney disease

How can you prevent RCS inhalation?

As someone in the flooring industry, it is in your best interest to ensure you are minimising your exposure to RCS, and also not transferring it from work elsewhere.

Some things you can do include:

  • Be proactive in educating yourself on the risks of RCS, and the best ways to protect yourself from it in your workplace.
  • Wear Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) wherever possible, in particular face masks fitted with respirators when completing tasks that might involve RCS. Get more information on the types of respirators available by clicking here.
  • Thoroughly wash your hands before and after working in dusty areas, particularly around meal times.
  • When possible, shower and change into clean clothes before leaving work to help prevent contamination of your car or home.

Employer responsibilities

As an employer, it is your responsibility to educate your workers on the dangers of crystalline silica dust, and the things that both you and they can do to avoid and minimise ingestion.

Some things that you can put in place to keep your employees safe:

  • Ensure all employees are trained around the risks of RCS, how to safely work around RCS, and how to dispose of contaminated waste.
  • Use water spray systems and proper ventilation in confined work spaces.
  • In instances where water systems and ventilation are not enough, you must provide respirators to your employees, specifically designed to protect against crystalline silica.
  • Offer health and lung screenings to all employees
  • Rotate staff to limit the time that they are exposed and locate Silica work away from other works.
  • Don’t clean up using compressed air or by dry sweeping, instead dust should be removed by an industrial HEPA filter vacuum.

Legislation and Regulatory requirements:

There are also some regulatory requirements that you legally must put in place regarding RCS, outlined below.

A PCBU (Person conducting or undertaking business) must ensure that no person at their workplace is exposed to RCS at an airborne concentration that exceeds the exposure standard for that substance or mixture. The workplace exposure standard (WES) for RCS is 0.1 mg/m3 8 hour Time-Weighted Average. Read more about what this means here.

Regulations also state that health monitoring must be provided to workers who are continually working with and around RCS as there is a significant risk to the workers’ health. Baseline monitoring before starting employment and then annually is recommended.

Air monitoring must also be carried out to determine the airborne concentration of RCS in a particular space. The PCBU must also ensure that the results of air monitoring are recorded and kept for 30 years after the date the record is made, and these results should also be available to all employees at risk.

Workplace Checklist

IDENTIFY the risks

    What are the risky areas and tasks in my workplace? How do they perform when compared to the legal workplace exposure standard?

MEASURE your workplace

  • Air monitoring: What is the level of RCS in my workplace?
  • Health Monitoring: What is the level of RCS exposure to my employees?

MINIMISE release of RCS

Prevention is the best solution!

  • Are there any alternative products we could use that don’t contain RCS?
  • Are there different work methods I could employ to prevent RCS becoming airborne in the first place?
  • Are we purchasing high quality equipment that might have inbuilt RCS suppression integration?

MANAGE the RCS at your workplace

  • Where RCS is not avoidable, what measures can I put in place to protect my employees? Ie: protective equipment
  • Are all my employees educated and trained on the best ways to protect themselves from RCS?

Further information

Worksafe Victoria: RCS in construction work
No Time To Lose: Prevention of occupational cancer, RCS factsheet
Enviroscience: How Silica can potentially affect a wide range of occupations
Safework Australia: Guidance on the interpretation of WES for airborne contaminants

[1] Source: