Silica -- also called silica dioxide or quartz dust -- is a naturally occurring substance found in dirt, sand, quartz, granite, clays, and other stones. Tiny particles of dust can be released into the air through the cutting, grinding, or drilling of rocks or products containing silica. The inhalation of this silica dust can cause silicosis, a debilitating and sometimes fatal lung disease, as well as other health problems. Usually people are exposed to silica dust at their workplace. This article discusses how people can be exposed to silica, health risks that have been linked to silica, and the different ways workers can get compensation for injuries caused by exposure to silica. (To learn more about toxic tort lawsuits, see Nolo's article Toxic Torts Overview.)
How Workers Are Exposed to Silica
Workplace exposure accounts for almost all health problems tied to silica exposure. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that 1.7 million U.S. workers are exposed to silica in the workplace each year.
Any job that involves chipping, cutting, grinding, or drilling rock poses a danger of inhaling silica dust. Employees can also be exposed to silica dust when working with products that contain silica. Specific types of industries and occupations that might expose workers to silica dust include:
- construction (especially when it involves sandblasting, masonry, and jack hammering)
- agriculture (due to excessive soil or dust in the air which contains silica)
- working with ceramics, clay, and pottery
- railroad workers who lay track
- foundry work
- installing and repairing furnaces
- manufacturing paint, soaps, glass, and abrasives; and
Government Standards for Silica Exposure Levels and Safety Recommendations
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets limits on acceptable levels of silica dust in the workplace, both for a 10-hour day and a 40-hour week. According to OSHA, silica exposure at dangerous levels can be eliminated when employers take the right safety precautions, including:
- using and maintaining dust control systems
- requiring that workers wear disposable or washable protective clothing
- requiring workers to shower and change clothes before leaving the work site
- conducting regular air monitoring
- using respirators when levels of silica dust are high, and
- posting warning signs and educating workers about silica and how to prevent its inhalation.
Unfortunately, employers don't always comply with OSHA's recommended safety standards, and illnesses linked to silica exposure continue to be a problem nationwide.
Health Problems Caused by Breathing Silica Dust
Exposure to silica has been tied to a number of serious health problems -- including silicosis, lung cancer, and other diseases.
Silicosis -- also called miner's phthisis, potter's asthma, grinder's rot, and stonecutter's disease -- usually develops when silica dust particles enter the lungs and cause scarring and hardening of lung tissue. In the early stages of the disease, people suffer from shortness of breath, chronic cough, and fever. People in the late stages of silicosis often experience severe shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, weight loss, and respiratory failure which can cause death.
There are three main types of silicosis:
- Chronic silicosis - usually occurs after long-term exposure (10 to 20 years) to low levels of silica dust.
- Accelerated silicosis - typically caused by shorter term exposure (5 to 10 years) to higher levels of silica.
- Acute silicosis - linked to short-term exposure (a few weeks to 5 years) to very high levels of silica.
Silicosis is not curable, but the disease can be treated through medication, treatment with oxygen, and a lung transplant in very serious cases. According to NIOSH, silicosis kills more than 250 people each year, and leaves hundreds more disabled.
Patients who have contracted silicosis have a higher risk of getting lung cancer. Some (but not all) scientists believe that silica exposure increases lung cancer risk even in people who do not have silicosis.
Bronchitis, Tuberculosis, and Other Diseases
Silica exposed workers are at greater risk for developing bronchitis and its more serious cousin, chronic bronchitis (also known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Chronic bronchitis can linger for months and can cause cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, wheezing, respiratory infections, and headaches.
Silica exposure also increases the risk of contracting tuberculosis. Recent research has also begun to explore a possible link between silica exposure and health problems like renal failure, autoimmune diseases, and nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys).
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