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Industry gets first glimpse at online silica safety tool

Russell Hixson
Industry gets first glimpse at online silica safety tool

The construction industry got one of its first looks at a silica safety tool being developed for B.C. Hugh Davies, part of the team developing the tool, offered attendees at WorkSafeBC’s Bridging the Gap safety conference a look at it. Davies teaches and researches occupational health at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health.

The B.C. Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA) is heading up work on the online tool, which is designed help keep workers safe from toxic silica dust and meet government safety requirements. The online and mobile tool will help workers determine likely silica exposures at their worksites and the appropriate controls that meet WorkSafeBC requirements. The initiative arose after WorkSafeBC proposed amendments to the occupational health and safety regulations relating to silica in 2013. Davies started by explain the extent of the silica problem.

"Sometimes we tend to underestimate this. We think of it as something as everywhere, and we can’t get away from it and the health effects that we expect to see are becoming less and less important," he said. "This is still something we should be very concerned about."

Silica is one of the most abundant compounds on earth and is found in many construction materials.

It becomes dangerous when in an extremely fine form that can be inhaled into the deep parts of the lungs, where gas exchange occurs. Silica dust is found in natural materials like sand, sandstone, granite, aggregates, clay, shale and slate. It is also found in concrete, masonry products, brick and tile. Workers are often exposed when these materials are drilled, cut or ground, which creates dusts. According to the BCCSA, more than 380,000 workers, mostly construction workers, are exposed to the dust each year. Acute silicosis can occur just weeks or months after a high exposure and can be fatal. Other delayed health effects can appear years later, like lung cancer or chronic silicosis. According to workers compensation data over the last 15 years, only a small number of those experiencing silicosis symptoms actually sought a claim.

"If you just look at accepted claim data, people just don’t claim," Davies said. "There is more silicosis out there that we think and these are just people who are suffering serious symptoms."

He added that beyond silicosis, there are about 350 cases of lung cancer a year caused by silica exposure. To combat this, WorkSafeBC will soon be implementing requirements for employers to assess silica risk at a jobsite and develop a mitigation plan.

However, it must be backed up with qualitative data. Rather than have testing done at every jobsite for every construction activity, the BCCSA has created a database of existing data that meets WorkSafeBC requirements. Davies showed how users can simply access the silica tool site, where they enter in variables like the activity, tool, duration and more to access relevant data. A mitigation plan is generated, allowing the workers to meet regulations.

"You can now use an online tool to enter the scenario you anticipate and the database will give you your initial risk assessment," Davies said, but noted that there isn’t data set for every combination.

The silica tool team went through about 16,000 pieces of information. Of that, about 8,000 met criteria and of those about 1,000 are relevant to B.C. Davies said he hopes that as the industry moves forward and collects data to meet requirements, the data will be shared and added to the tool.

"There are big gaps in the data, so what we are hoping to do is work with industry to help collect that data and then get it into the tool where it can be shared with everyone else," he said.

Davies said the tool is still in the pilot phase, but should be available to the industry sometime in the new year. The silica regulation amendments will be in place in 2017, giving the industry a head start at using the tool.

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