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Safety professional talks tools to reduce silica exposure

Angela Gismondi
Safety professional talks tools to reduce silica exposure

When working in an environment with silica, it’s important to know where the hazards are and how to protect yourself from them, Jane Eustace, manager of prevention services, WorkplaceNL, told attendees at the Newfoundland and Labrador Construction Safety Association’s (NLCSA) conference.

In her presentation, Silica, It’s Not Just Dust, Eustace discussed tools and controls employers can put in place to protect workers. Certain construction activities such as the demolition of a building or the blasting process can generate dust that can have silica.

“Repeated exposure to silica can cause irreversible lung diseases things like COPD, silicosis and lung cancer,” said Eustace. “Right now, with regards to our claims data, silica is one of our top five causes of occupational disease.

“It’s very important you look after your lungs because with these types of exposures there is no treatment short of a lung transplant. We have no way to remove silica once it gets in there, so it’s very important that we simply are not exposed or that we keep our exposure as low as we can.”

Respiratory protection really should only be used when there is no other conceivable option to put in place, she noted.

“Respiratory protection really shouldn’t be the go-to to protect people from these types of hazards,” she said. “It’s always better to remove the presence of silica first or find some way to prevent it from getting up into the air.”

She also provided some examples of how to prevent exposure.

“Advocate for the use of methods during construction in the planning phases that reduce the need to cut, grind or drill concrete,” she said.

“With regards to substitutions, especially when it comes to things like sandblasting, there are tons of other options available.”

When it comes to engineering controls, the best option is wet dust suppression, said Eustace.

“There is nothing else that really does as good a job as this,” she noted. “I’ve been on many projects over the years where we went in and we sampled and tested with or without using water and we managed to get industries that were fully in respiratory protection all day into nothing by just simply having that water present to keep the dust from getting up into the air to begin with.”

There are a lot of different ways to do this.

“It can be as simple as just putting a hose,” she said. “Even with power tools there are all kinds of shrouded, suction casing-type attachments you can get when you’re cutting and drilling in concrete that again provide that water right at the source. This is the way to go if you can’t simply eliminate silica altogether.”

An enclosure with ventilation is another option but the person that is working inside that enclosure will need respiratory protection, Eustace said.

“You’re protecting everyone else at that jobsite from the dust that person is creating,” she explained. “It is really important when you do choose to go with an enclosure with some type of ventilation system that it’s all set up correctly and that you maintain it. These systems get clogged up quite fast and if you’re not managing your filters, you’ve really just created a bit of a false sense of security.”

Another option would be local exhaust.

“Sometimes this will work for small jobs, if you’re just getting a batch of concrete together you could just direct your local exhaust nearby to the hazard so it’s as close to the source as possible,” Eustace said.

The average piece of heavy equipment is also designed to protect the occupant from silica.

“The cab of your excavator is meant to be operated with the windows up with some amount of positive pressure inside the cab,” Eustace said. “What positive pressure does is it keeps stuff from coming in.”

She also talked about the use of administrative controls.

“Your main one should be some sort of exposure plan, something to address the work that you’re doing,” Eustace explained.

“Some additional stuff would include things like signage, preventative maintenance schedules for your systems. If you are using ventilation systems or even wet dust suppression, you need to check it regularly to make sure it’s set up in the correct place, that you are getting the most out of it.”

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