Ontario has a new weapon in the fight against diseases caused by exposure to silica: the Silica Control Tool.
The platform is a risk assessment tool that allows users to input information before launching into a silica-based construction job, such as drilling into a quartz countertop, and provides an estimated exposure level to silica based on the details inputted.
The Ontario government has allocated $900,000 to bringing the tool to the province.
“The point was to create awareness around silica itself, the tool, and how it allows employers to access data at their fingertips,” said occupational hygienist Jasmine Kalsi of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), who has been directly involved in its launch this month.
“This will create awareness of silica and it’s something that is quite intuitive to use as well.”
Crystalline silica is a naturally occurring mineral that is the basic component in sand and rock. It is found in many materials and industrial processes, including sand, rock, concrete, brick, mortar, granite, glass or ceramics.
The most common form of silica is quartz.
Each year over 150,000 Ontario workers are exposed to silica, which can lead to significant health problems, including silicosis, a serious and irreversible lung disease, and lung cancer.
“In construction itself, there are so many different tasks where workers can be exposed,” said Kalsi. “Anytime they’re working with any concrete or any masonry structures…anything related to road construction, there’s a pretty good chance of exposure to silica.”
The tool was developed by the British Columbia Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA) with research from the UBC School of Population and Public Health.
It was brought to Ontario as a project of the Occupational Illness Prevention Steering Committee, with members including the Ministry of Labour (MOL), the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association and other health and research partners; the tool is being hosted and launched by OHCOW.
Introduction of the tool was recommended in the recent Occupational Disease Landscape Review report delivered to the MOL.
Provincial Chief Prevention Officer Dr. Joel Moody said last month that silica was a priority for his office with measures such as the Silica Control Tool being an example of a “high impact” tactic.
The free digital tool was officially introduced Nov. 3. It’s accessible on the WSIB website and elsewhere.
After gauging workers’ potential exposure to silica, the tool helps develop job-specific exposure control plans to limit the hazard.
“It’s useful in the sense that it makes the user identify what material, what type of task they’re doing, makes you factor in the duration of exposure as well, how long are you doing a particular type of task,” explained Kalsi.
“Then it gives you an estimated level of exposure without controls, it forces you through a series of yes or no questions for the hierarchy of controls.”
One of the main outputs of the tool is the development of the exposure control program, which summarizes all the controls the user has selected to protect a worker.
Dr. Melanie Gorman-Ng of the BCCSA was involved in developing the tool and she hosted a video giving examples of how it works.
Where a material is granite, for example, the task is drilling and the tool is an electric hammer drill, engineered controls such as wetting the site or installing exhaust controls might be recommended.
Other controls are elimination, substitution and administration, such as changing shift schedules.
“In the end, it also makes you think about personal protective equipment,” said Kalsi. “And it gives a recommendation for the type of respiratory protection that would be recommended, based on controls implemented from the ones you’ve selected already.”
Every jurisdiction has exposure limits and regulations related to silica on the books and the Silica Control Tool makes it easier for employers to comply, with no need to hire a consultant to ensure compliance.
Gorman-Ng pointed out that small and medium-sized employers have fewer resources to spend on health and safety so the advent of the free silica tool is a boon. Data collected is summarized and can be downloaded in pdf form.
“Employers that I’ve spoken to, even within our own labour management network, they have given it full support,” Kalsi said.
Besides creating safer workplaces and boosting awareness of silica hazards, Kalsi said, the tool should make a dent in the financial burden of silica-related claims.
“We’ll see how the tool plays out, what’s the uptake within employers in Ontario. It will take quite some time, a couple of years at least, did we see a positive impact from the tool itself?”
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