How Construction Workers Are Being Exposed to Silica

For many years, construction has been universally accepted as one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. There are many ways workers can be injured, either catastrophically or over time. Exposure to silica – the mineral compound silicon dioxide – is found in two forms: crystalline andr noncrystalline “dust.” Like mesothelioma (asbestos poisoning), silicosis – resulting from exposure to silica – is a disabling, non-reversible and ultimately fatal lung disease.

Crystalline silica is a known carcinogen found in sand, stone and artificial stone. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that 2.3 million workers are exposed to the dust, the overwhelming majority – 2 million – in construction. When workers inhale crystalline silica, the lungs develop hard nodules and scarring around these trapped microscopic foreign objects. Exposure over many years typically results in permanent disability and leads to fatal breathing problems.

Certain construction job functions are exposing workers to silica dust at 10 times the acceptable exposure limit set by OSHA, according to a recent study. Researchers at the Department of Public Health at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell collected over 50 personal-breathing-zone samples from workers and 33 “area samples” at demolition, crushing and bridge repair sites throughout the state. Their objective was to specify the degree of the dangers of silica to not only on-site workers, but also to bystanders (which necessitated the collection of area samples).

UM-Lowell researchers discovered that …

  • Workers performing concrete chipping at substructure bridge repair sites had the highest levels of respirable crystalline silica exposure (levels at 10 times higher than acceptable limits).
  • Those operating crushing machine tenders had lower (but moderate) exposure levels.
  • Operating engineers and general laborers had the lowest – but still elevated – exposure levels.

A Variety of Dangerous Diseases are Linked to Silica

Inhaling crystalline silica can lead to serious, usually fatal illnesses. In addition to silicosis, other health problems can include:

  • Lung cancer
  • Tuberculosis (as a direct outgrowth of silicosis)
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which degrades both lung and bronchial tube (bronchi) functions
  • Renal disease
  • Other cancers.

Silicosis and its associated health challenge is subtle and pernicious and takes years to fully manifest itself because the effects build up over time. Early symptoms include a chronic dry cough and shortness of breath when engaging in any moderate physical activity.

Several recent studies have revealed that between 3,600 and 7,300 new cases of silicosis occur annually in the U.S. But due to lack of focused data on exposure, many cases of silicosis are not reported, and thousands more are not even properly diagnosed.

Another trait that silicosis and mesothelioma share is that the worker can literally take the dangerous dust home with them on their clothes and in their hair and automobiles. In order to protect themselves and their families, in addition to wearing safety masks and other apparatus, they must do the following so they won’t take silicosis home with them:

  • Change into disposable (or washable) clothes and leave work clothes at the work site (for the employer to clean) to prevent contamination of their cars, and homes
  • Shower (if possible) at the end of their shift before changing into clean clothes and leaving the worksite
  • Parking their cars upwind of work areas so they won’t be contaminated with silica dust.

For those who want more information on regulations that cover silica exposure and preventative measures employers and employees must take, visit the online OSHA Silica Standard for Construction website.

The seasoned injury legal team at Kaplan Lawyers PC represents people who have been diagnosed with silicosis due to long-term exposure to silicon dust and crystals on the job. Contact us anytime by phoning the office nearest you, or use this website to schedule your free case evaluation.