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HomeTechnical"Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" SILICOSIS is on the rise!

“Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” SILICOSIS is on the rise!

The phrase, “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” comes from the 1965 television series, “Lost in Space.” The robot would shout that warning to the young Will Robinson any time a threat to his safety was imminent. Today, this warning is still appropriate for calling attention to the dangers of airborne silica.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which falls under the authority of the United States Department of Labor, oversees many aspects of health and safety on the jobsite. OSHA standard 29 CFR1926.1153, Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) went into effect on June 23, 2016, and required compliance on September 23, 2017. The standard requires employers to limit worker exposure to RCS and take the necessary steps to protect workers from the dust created by cutting, grinding, crushing, or chipping. Silica can be commonly found in sand, mortar, concrete, brick, granite and other minerals, and artificial stone with the most common form of RCS being quartz. 

An angle grinder without a safety guard dangerously cuts a granite sill without proper dust control placing the worker in harm’s way.

What is the OSHA definition of silica?

Respirable crystalline silica means quartz, cristobalite, and/or tridymite contained in airborne particles that are determined to be respirable by a sampling device designed to meet the characteristics for respirable-particle-size-selective samplers specified in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 7708:1995: Air Quality – Particle Size Fraction Definitions for Health-Related Sampling.

A worker prepares the concrete substrate by using an open grinder. He is protected by a hard hat, steel toe boots, and a worthless bandana.

Some of OSHA’s regulation requirements

OSHA requires employers to establish and  implement a written exposure control plan that identifies tasks that involve exposure and methods used to protect workers, including procedures to restrict access to work areas where high exposures may occur.

One important piece of equipment is a HEPA filter. The high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter means High-Efficiency Particulate Air [HEPA]. It designates a filter that is at least 99.97 percent efficient in removing mono-dispersed particles of 0.3 micrometers in diameter when utilized in a HEPA-rated vacuum that is connected to the tool creating dust.

Careless dry sweeping with a broom may be an expensive method if the OSHA agent witnesses this activity. Using a HEPA filtered vacuum is much less expensive.

A “competent person” needs to oversee work practices to ensure regulations are being met. A “competent person” means an individual who is capable of identifying existing and foreseeable respirable crystalline silica hazards in the workplace and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate or minimize them. 

Employers must restrict housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica, such as use of compressed air without a ventilation system to capture the dust. Similarly, dry sweeping is not permitted when effective, safe alternatives are available.

A floor grinder properly fitted with a dust bonnet and HEPA vacuum controls the dust while keeping the worker safe from respirable crystalline silica dust.

The RCS document is lengthy and can be overwhelming, but compliance is required. However, OSHA does provide help. OSHA’s On-Site Consultation Program offers free, confidential occupational safety and health services to small and medium-sized businesses in all states and several territories of the United States, with priority given to high-hazard worksites. On-site consultation services are separate from enforcement and do not result in penalties or citations. Consultants from state agencies or universities collaborate with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice on compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing and improving safety and health management systems. To locate the OSHA On-Site Consultation Program nearest you, call 1-800-321-OSHA or visit www.osha.gov/consultation.

What is silicosis?

A worker safely mixes thin set mortar. She is protecting her eyes with glasses and her lungs by using a dust containment device and a HEPA filtered vacuum.

Silicosis is an incurable and debilitating lung disease primarily caused by occupational exposure to RCS. The initial stages of silicosis may not produce recognizable symptoms and can continue for years without detection, but certain people begin experiencing them within weeks of high exposure levels. Some of the early symptoms may include shortness of breath, severe coughing, wheezing, weakness and fatigue, fever, and chest pain, but the disease often leads to death that can strike workers both young and old.

The challenge of silicosis is diagnosing it. Currently, most medical tests cannot discover the early signs of the disease that allow it to progress. The severity of silicosis depends on the individual, the length and severity of exposure, and personal health habits, such as smoking, which can exacerbate the disease. All levels of the disease lead to debilitating symptoms that worsen in time. Treatment for silicosis, which has no cure, primarily aims to manage symptoms, and extend and improve quality of life.

Learn more about silicosis here: https://www.consumer notice.org/environmental/silica-dust/silicosis/

Cutting porcelain, natural stone, or engineered stone tile with a wet saw provides a safe environment for the tile mechanic as well as others nearby.

Australia bans engineered stone to curb silicosis

Along with the products mentioned above, there is a recent caution to observe. An ABC News report dated December 13, 2023, stated that engineered stone will soon be banned in Australia. That week, Australia became the first country in the world to announce a ban on engineered stone. The ban goes into effect on July 1, 2024, in most states and territories (of Australia) with people advised not to order any engineered stone after January 1, 2024. The ban is based on an Australia’s government WHS (Work, Health, and Safety) agency, releasing a report in October 2023 that stated, Engineered stone workers develop silicosis at a disproportionate rate compared to other industries.“ 

Most engineered stone workers who developed silicosis were under 35.

According to a Forbes article titled, “Are America’s Favorite Countertops Going Away?” dated April 3, 2024, the International Surface Fabricators Association’s executive director, Marissa Bankert, said, “All fabricators in the industry are required to comply with OSHA’s Respirable Crystalline Silica rule (as of September 23, 2017), which includes a range of protective measures. Awareness of safety practices and adhering to preventative measures is critical – in every company, in any industry, that is using silica material.”  

The article continues by stating, “Engineered stone is among the highest surfaces in silica content, at more than 90%, compared to less than 45% in granite and less than 20% in porcelain.” 

In addition, last December, Cal/OSHA – the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board – approved an emergency temporary standard on respirable crystalline silica to protect workers from silicosis. This standard went into effect December 29, 2023. This new standard requires employers to implement new protections for workers. Find out more here: https://tinyurl.com/CalOSHASilicosis

This conversation appears to be a doom-and-gloom scenario, which for those workers affected by silicosis, is certainly an incredibly sad situation – but it is avoidable. Employers are responsible for providing a safe working environment that meets the OSHA standard. The lack of these precautions being in place increases the potential for workers being at risk for silicosis. 

The unfortunate aspect of the topic of silicosis is that the products listed above, in and of themselves, do not pose a threat to those working with them, IF the appropriate and properly utilized PPE and air quality measures are in place. For those who cut, grind, or mix the products found in the tile industry, be careful, adequately protect yourself, and add a large dose of common sense.   

Scott Carothers
Academic Director at Ceramic Tile Education Foundation

Scott Carothers is the Acdemic Director for the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) and is responsible for the creation of the Certified Tile Installer (CTI) program, and is involved in the creation of the Advanced Certifications for Tile Installers (ACT) program as well as providing training to others in the tile industry.

Carothers has been involved in the ceramic tile industry for nearly 40 years and was the owner of a successful retail and installation firm prior to CTEF. He has served as President and Chairman of the Board of the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), Chairman of the NTCA Technical Committee, was named the NTCA Tile Person of the Year in 2005, and the NTCA Ring of Honor recipient in 2013. He is a voting member of the ANSI and the TCNA Handbook committees.

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