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Written by
on 25 June 2014


The bane of the construction world; silica can be a nasty customer.

Not least because it’s so common in all kinds of building materials.  But fortunately, we know the threat today, and it’s an easy one to mitigate if you follow these simple safety steps.

What it is and Where it’s Found

Silica is a natural substance found in stone to varying degrees. The most common are sandstone (70% – 90% content), cement, concrete and mortar (25% – 70%), tile (30% – 45%) and slate, brick, limestone and marble to a lesser degree.

It’s also sometimes used in plastics. But the real threat to your workers’ health comes when rock is blasted into dust, releasing the silica into the air, during construction or demolition processes with rock or concrete.

A Breath of Bad Air

When in this breathable form the health and safety jargon calls it ‘Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS)’, and it leads to all kinds of very unpleasant lung diseases.

Most commonly ‘Silicosis’ where the breathing gets harder and more vulnerable to more serious lung infections, and even lung cancer.   These conditions do take years of exposure to develop, but very high levels of exposure without safety precautions can turn years into months.

What Throws Up Silica

Watch out for these common dust cloud-creating processes;

–        Grinding, sawing, chipping, hammering or drilling masonry, rock or concrete

–        Any demolition process

–        Power cutting or dressing stone

–        Dumping, loading, hauling or crushing rock

–        Abrasive or hydro-blasting concrete

–        Pressurized air blowing and dry-sweeping any concrete or sand dust

–        Tunnelling or excavating soil with rock content

Basically any work with rock or concrete!

Making Silica Dust-Protection a Must; Your 6 Steps to Follow

  1. Start with the Design

As with most cases in health and safety in construction, you can do ten times more good work with the right preparation.

While designing the building, aim to minimize the above silica-releasing processes during construction.  For example, you can cut the need to drill concrete and masonry right down with pre-built in recesses for electric wiring, gas and plumbing.

This is something which should get easier and more natural to do with the 2015 CDM regulations and introduction of the architect’s role as a principal designer.

  1. Implement a Solid Silica Exposure Plan

Again, before work even begins you can develop and implement an effective plan which should include crystal clear responsibilities and purpose.

With risk assessment, education and training for everyone to go near it, controls, written procedures for safe work, close health monitoring of workers, washing facilities, and decontamination facilities, and of course extensive documentation.

A sizable pile of things, true.  But well-worth it.  If you’d like help, guidance or for us to do it for you, we’d be happy to help.

  1. Training, Training, Training

The finest of safety plans is worthless without the right training; make sure your workers understand it as well as you do – when they know the risks they’ve certainly got the motivation to carry it out!

  1. Reduce Dust with Controls

You can set up controls around the site to reduce dust clouds and build up.  Such as barriers between areas to keep dust localized, and water spray systems or local exhaust ventilation within the areas.

  1. Use the Right Protective Equipment

All such work listed above has got to be done with respirators, protective clothing and any other suitable protective equipment.  This part isn’t an option if you want to keep your people safe.

  1. Use Better Materials

Often times you can change the materials for a healthier substitute at little or no extra cost.

For example, in abrasive blasting – a common culprit in silica releasing – you can take out the silica sand and use crushed glass or olivine instead.

With most or all 6 of these steps followed, the threat is all but gone.  So you and your workers can breathe a little easier.

Do you have any questions about silica and how to reduce health risks?

Ask away, we’re always happy to talk.

A chartered safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.


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