EDITOR’S NOTE: The following column details the hazards of breathing in crystalline silica dust. When in doubt about the potential content of crystalline silica in a product, contact your manufacturer, and always follow safety precautions while working.

“The installer looked at the ceramic glaze covering his clothes and proceeded to use his hand to knock the dust off. The dust became airborne which would cause anyone working around this employee, including himself, to inhale the dust. Once his shift was over the installer wore these clothes home, which put his family at risk from breathing in the same dust.”

This is an observation of an installer in the 1870s who was working with ceramic tile. Rather than being a concern from the distant past, this scene is repeated today as floor layers are performing tasks that cause their clothes to be covered with dust. The dust is known as crystalline silica which, when inhaled on a consistent basis, can lead to the debilitating disease silicosis.

In recent years floor layers have experienced a rise in the responsibility of leveling and preparing concrete substrates for finished flooring products. The procedures and products that are specified for the leveling process are often associated with Portland-based cements, which may include trace amounts of crystalline silica in their makeup. Through the leveling and preparation procedures (such as mixing, sanding, grinding and sweeping) this crystalline silica can become airborne. If proper safety equipment isn’t worn the airborne dust can be inhaled, and over a period of time will begin to form on an individual’s lungs which may lead to the disease silicosis.

Silicosis is caused by the inhalation of very fine particles of respirable silica dust. Once inhaled the silica dust causes scar tissue to form on the lungs and restricts the ability to breathe normally. Research shows the effects from exposure to respirable silica dust are permanent and can lead to death. Much the same as exposure to asbestos, the effects of silicosis are not immediate and may take years to begin to affect installers.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention Health explain when inhaled the silica dust particles enter into the lungs, and the amount and concentration of the dust is critical in developing silicosis. There are three classifications of silicosis: acute, chronic and accelerated. Each of these classifications comes with a timeline in which they will most likely occur.

Acute will occur in a few weeks to five years after initial exposure. Chronic is the long-term effects of continued exposure to low concentrations of crystalline silica and symptoms may not occur for 10 years. The accelerated classification comes from high exposure levels of crystalline silica and will begin to occur in five to 10 years. Silicosis is often being referred to as “the new asbestos” because both affect the human body in the same way.

The Jersey Safety Council published an article in March 2012 that details a woman who died from exposure to the asbestos on her husband’s work clothes. Jill Bolstridge would shake the dirt (asbestos) from her husband’s overalls before placing them in the washing machine. Bolstridge said her face was always close to the clothes she was shaking and this is how the asbestos entered her body. After years of exposure, she died from complications caused by the inhalation of asbestos.

Floor layers are constantly wearing silica dust home from the jobsite. Family members are placed at risk. Children tend to run up and give their parent a hug around the pant leg, where the majority of silica dust has accumulated. Many floor layers drive the family vehicle to work which have seat cushions made of cloth, where the silica dust is easily absorbed.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), silica targets both the respiratory system and eyes as a means to enter the body. One method of protection for the target organs comes from wearing the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), specifically respirators, safety glasses and gloves. Floor layers were asked which form of PPE they wear when preparing concrete substrates. The use of respiratory equipment was 29%, safety glasses 33%, gloves 27%, and 51% wore no PPE at all.

There are plenty of ways floor layers can protect themselves and their families. Wearing PPE is the best form of protection. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and NIOSH give details on the exposure limits and PPE for individuals that work around silica.

Installers can change clothes at the beginning and the end of the work shift, so the dust is not being transported to their vehicles or homes. Any dust collected on their dirty clothes should be beaten off at work where a respirator is available before placing them into a trash bag for transporting home.

It is up to the individual floor layer to guard their health and the health of their families. It’s your livelihood—and your life.