In every working environment, there will always be certain risks to the health and safety of employees. Some industries more than others are required to adhere to very strict controls in relation to how they manage these risks. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in those industries in environments where large amounts of dust are present and where those dust particles contain Silica.

We will look at how employers can manage the threat of dusts such as silica, and where respiratory protective equipment (RPE) can be useful, or even essential, in the workplace.

What Is Silica?

Silica is a naturally occurring substance that can be found in a variety of materials that we encounter in the workplace, including but not exclusive to sandstone, tiles, mortar, concrete, bricks, slate, some plastics and gases, granite, marble and limestone. When these materials are cut, blasted, drilled carved or sanded they produce a very fine dust which is so fine it cannot be seen under normal lighting.

This dust is known as Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) which is more commonly known as Silica Dust. Exposure to RCS can cause a variety of serious health problems and employers have a duty of care to provide and maintain appropriate RPE (Respiratory Protective Equipment) to employees that are exposed, in compliance with The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH).

What Type of Industries are Exposed?

There are an extensive number of industries that encounter exposure to RCS but the most common working environments for high exposure include:

• Quarrying
• Foundries
• Demolition and Construction
• Slate processing and Mining
• Manufacture of Concrete Products
• Abrasive Blasting (Particularly Sandstone)
• Ceramic, Pottery, Tile and Brick Manufacturing
• Manufacture of Kitchen Worktops, Stone Fireplaces, Monuments and Architectural Masonry.

In addition to the main processes of these work environments such as drilling, cutting, blasting, sanding, grinding, chiselling, mixing and polishing, exposure to Silica dust can also occur through spillages and leaks, dry sweeping, surface and clothing contamination and moving people and vehicles.

What are the Dangers to Employee Health from Exposure To RCS?

According to the UK Health and Safety Executive there are over 1000 reported deaths per year that have been attributed to prolonged exposure to RCS in the workplace, with thousands more employees suffering from acute respiratory conditions as a direct result.

By inhaling RCS, many people develop Silicosis, which restricts breathing and enhances the chance of lung related diseases. Prolonged or high exposure can result in rapid deterioration of health and the development of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which is the collective name of a group of chronic lung diseases including emphysema and bronchitis. In severe cases, this can develop into lung cancer and ultimately result in premature death.

Employer Responsibility

Whilst the latter may cause fear in many employers and employees, exposure to RCS can be controlled and, where adequate health and safety measures are taken and appropriate RPE is provided and maintained by the employer, the risks to employee health from RCS can become insignificant.

There are several measures that need to be taken by the employer to ensure employee safety in line with UK occupational health standards. Placing a strong emphasis not only on the implementation but the consistent monitoring of these measures will ensure employer conformity and employee safety.

Risk Assessment

A risk assessment is a way of determining which materials are hazardous, the amount of each hazardous material, how much dust each material and process produces and ultimately how this may lead to exposure.

The effectiveness of hazardous controls should be inspected, and processes for cleaning and maintenance should be examined in terms of their effectiveness and to ensure that the correct procedures are in place to minimise and not emphasise exposure.

The organisation, location and structure of individual employee roles should be assessed for exposure and appropriate information and training provided to these employees to eliminate or dramatically reduce risk of exposure.

UK law states that any company employing more than 5 people should keep a written record of risk assessment. In reality, a written record should be kept regardless of the business size and wherever possible advice should be sought in the assessment of risk from a competent and qualified professional within the relevant industry sector.

Prevention and Control of Exposure

A thorough risk assessment is the foundation to work from in the prevention and control of RCS exposure. Although not always a viable option, where risk is present, substituting or alternative materials with a reduced RCS content should be considered. Control and prevention measures should be put in place according to the findings of the risk assessment including rigid practises in hygiene to maintain adequate control.

Exposure measurement equipment should also be sourced to control workplace exposure limits (WEL), which determine that exposure should be limited to 0.1mg/m3 respirable dust averaged over an eight hour period.

Personal Protective Equipment

When the total elimination of RCS is not possible, adequate measures should be taken to provide the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) to employees working in an exposed environment.

PPE is only effective if stringent controls are in place and the correct PPE is provided in relation to the specific material, environment and levels of exposure. PPE can include items such as gloves, overalls, protective footwear and respiratory protective equipment. Each environment and the materials used will determine the PPE required.

It is also important to note that the cleaning and maintenance of all PPE should be carried out under strict hygiene controls within the workplace, not in the homes of employees.

Respiratory Protective Equipment

This type of equipment is essential in work environments where RCS is present, even if stringent controls of exposure are in place. For RPE to be fully effective, specific occupational health guidelines need to be adhered to: such equipment should be sourced by personnel who are fully trained in PPE, and RPE should be selected based on the correct fit and facial characteristics of the wearer and the specific type and level of exposure in their working environment.

Correct Selection of RPE – RPE equipment should be sourced by personnel who are fully trained and should be selected based on the correct fit and facial characteristics of the wearer and the specific type and level of exposure in their working environment. Wearing a mask that is a poor fit will lead to only limited protection against dangerous dust. The fit is usually determined by ‘face fit’ testing and it is advisable for the effective use of RPE for the wearer to be clean shaven.

Maintenance of RPE – The appropriate maintenance and cleaning of RPE equipment must be carried out by a trained professional within the workplace. Checks should also be carried out on a regular basis to ensure the ongoing effectiveness of each individual piece of RPE.

Training in The Use of RPE – In addition to the staff tasked with maintaining the equipment, both supervisors and workers should be fully trained in the correct use and limitations of RPE equipment and safe working procedures. Each employee should be fully versed in how to check, clean and use their RPE in addition to knowing how and when to change filters or dispose of RPE where necessary.

Adequate training of employees is not enough to ensure the ongoing correct use of RPE and, as such, regular observance should be implemented to ensure correct application over time. Where improper usage and/or maintenance is identified measures should be taken to re-address training issues immediately.

Health Surveillance – Health surveillance is essential to monitor employee health over time. This can include the use of working history and health questionnaires, chest x-rays and lung function tests. The form of health surveillance and frequency should be based on advice provided by a qualified and experienced occupational health professional who will base their decisions on specifics such as the duration, frequency and levels of exposure of RCS to individuals.

RPE Storage – Both supervisors and staff must ensure the appropriate storage of RPE in a secure, clean, dust-free environment.

Cleaning and Maintenance of the Environment – Staff must also be aware of the correct methods of cleaning dusty environments even when wearing RPE, which includes both avoiding dry sweeping in favour of vacuum or wet cleaning and avoiding the use of compressed air to clean protective equipment and clothing.

Prevention Is the Key
In certain industries, the complete elimination of RCS is a virtual impossibility. However, correct controls, adherence to health and safety guidelines and the appropriate use of specific and specialist protective equipment can dramatically reduce and, in some instances, completely eradicate the potential dangers associated with exposure to RCS.

The importance placed on the correct use, maintenance and employee training of RPE cannot be emphasised enough and will instil confidence within the workforce in your company, placing the emphasis on their comfort, health, safety and wellbeing.

Ensuring employee education and health and safety conformity – coupled with consistent risk assessment and maintenance of controls and equipment – will go a long way to ensuring a risk-free, professional and productive working environment.