What is silicosis?
Silicosis is a serious, long-term lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of crystalline silica dust.
Found in certain types of rock, stone, sand and clay, and even some plastics, silica spores can be inhaled as dust particles and once inside the lungs, are attacked by the immune system. Inflammation occurs and over time, leads to hardened and scarred lung tissue that stops working properly.
Silicosis usually develops after long-term exposure of silica dust (around 10 – 20 years) but has also been known to develop in people who have had a relatively shorter exposure (5 – 10 years). However, very heavy exposure can shorten this timeframe down to just a few months.
Symptoms of silicosis
Symptoms of silicosis can take years to develop and can present themselves years after you’ve stopped working with silica dust.
The main symptoms are:
- a persistent cough
- persistent shortness of breath
- weakness and tiredness
Who is most at risk of developing silicosis?
Because of the origins of silica dust, certain people are more at risk than others when it comes to developing silicosis. For example those who work in:
- stone masonry and stone cutting – especially with sandstone
- construction and demolition – as a result of exposure to concrete and paving materials
- pottery, ceramics and glass manufacturing
- mining and quarrying
- sand blasting
- industries using silica flour to manufacture goods
As particles of silica can be less than 5 micrometres, it makes them really easy to breathe in. Additionally, very small dust particles stay floating in the air for longer than larger particles meaning there’s more chance of them being breathed in.
There is no specific treatment or cure for silicosis and having it can increase your chance of also developing:
- tuberculosis (TB) and other chest infections
- pulmonary hypertension
- heart failure
- kidney disease
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- lung cancer
How extensive is the problem of silicosis?
According to data published by the HSE on 31st October 2018, 12,000 lung disease deaths each year are estimated to be linked to past exposures at work. Latest figures also show that around 11 people die per year specifically from silicosis.
Chest physicians participating in the SWORD scheme with The Health and Occupation Reporting (THOR) network have typically identified around 25 estimated new cases each year.
Whilst the following graph shows that cases of, and deaths due to, silicosis have declined (most likely due to increased health and safety measures), available sources are likely to substantially underestimate the annual incidence of silicosis.
Reducing the risk of silicosis in manufacturing
There are various steps that can be taken to reduce employees’ exposure to silica dust and subsequently decreasing their chance of developing silicosis.
Provide suitable protective workwear
First and foremost, suitable respiratory protective equipment should be used. Whilst protective workwear is not the only method that should be used, it’s an important first step. It’s also important that protective workwear is worn correctly, including masks.
Correctly cleaning protective workwear is also a vital step. One of the biggest concerns of working in environments with high levels of silica dust is contamination. For example, if workwear worn in these environments is washed with other garments, these could be contaminated by the silica dust.
Use an enclosure to contain the dust
Dust is created from many common place processes in manufacturing facilities. If you can create an enclosure with a dust tight seal around the area that these processes are taking place, you can contain the dust and stop it from spreading to other parts of the manufacturing facility. As previously mentioned, contamination is a major concern when it comes to silica dust. Should silica particles be allowed to travel through the air, employees working in different areas of a manufacturing facility could be exposed to silica dust without even knowing.
Flexiwall, for example, is an effective way to create an enclosure as it offers an over 99% dust tight seal due to a unique v-overlap and installation process, and is commonly used for dust prevention: Kingsland Drinks and Lightweight Containers.
If possible, also use a local exhaust ventilation to suck dust away as it’s created to reduce the concentration of dust particles in the air.
Wet down the work to keep dust levels lower
Water can be used to dampen dust clouds, stopping dust from travelling so far. Enough water needs to be supplied at the right levels for the entire time that work is being done to be an effective solution.
Fit and use on-tool dust extraction devices to hand-held tools
On-tool extraction can be used to remove the dust as it is being produced. This type of local exhaust ventilation system consists of several individual parts that fit directly onto the tool to keep as much dust out of the air as possible.