Research suggests that in Britain nearly 800 people die a year from lung cancer caused by breathing in silica dust at work.  In the European Union, around 7,000 cases of lung cancer are caused by this carcinogen annually.  Worldwide, it’s estimated that millions of employees are exposed to silica dust.

Silica dust is created when the ‘crystalline silica’ in materials such as stone, mortar or tiles is broken down and released.  It happens when you drill, saw, cut, grind or sand the products – or work on them in any way that disturbs the natural silica content.

Through ‘No Time to Lose’, a new cross-industry commitment to tackle silica dust in the workplace has been agreed. Industry leaders, academics and safety and health experts have committed to a 12-month drive to tackle the issue and you can read about their committment here.

Silica dust is only harmful when it is inhaled deep into your lungs, where oxygen is taken up into the blood, hence sitting on a sandy beach won’t cause any respiratory harm because any sand particles breathed in will generally be much too big to go beyond your nose or upper airways.  But as a very fine airborne dust, silica can be very dangerous and it is the respirable fraction that is hazardous.

Respirable particles are typically less than around 5 micrometers in size, you can compare this to the ‘full stop’ at the end of this sentence, which is around 200–300 micrometers in diameter, and the finest sand on the beach, which is about 50–70 micrometers.  In fact individual silica dust particles are so small that they are invisible to the naked eye in normal light – so you can have relatively high airborne concentrations without even being aware that the dust is being inhaled.

In 1996, the International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed the scientific evidence and concluded that crystalline silica in the form of quartz or cristobalite dust is carcinogenic to humans – it is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning it is a definite cause of cancer in humans.

Exposure to silica dust occurs in many industries and common scenarios where people may be exposed include:- breaking, crushing, grinding or milling silica-containing material such as concrete, aggregate or mortar- drilling, cutting, chiselling or sanding silica-containing material- dealing with cement- moving earth, eg excavating, mining, quarrying or tunnelling- abrasive blasting or sandblasting- laying, maintaining or replacing ballast- handling, mixing or shovelling dry materials that include silica- using silica, sand or silica-containing products in the manufacturing process of glass and other non-metallic mineral products- using sand as a moulding medium in foundries- using silica flour (a finely ground form of crystalline silica)- dry sweeping up after a task where silica dust has been created.

Despite the level of exposure however only 16% of UK Construction Professionals believe that construction workers are aware of the risks they face in breathing in dust!

Stay Safe & Get the full factsheet here:  RESPIRABLE CRYSTALLINE SILICA: THE FACTS (IOSH)