We don’t always think of the smallest things as threats, but like certain types of bacteria and chemical molecules (all microscopic threats), common dust can also pose a risk. Tiny particles of crystalline silica, a common mineral of the earth’s crust, respirable silica (dust) is of deep interest to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) because of the risk it poses to construction workers and others.

Often released when drilling, sawing, cutting or crushing bricks, rock, stone or similar materials, the most common source of respirable silica is from quartz. It’s well-known that, when inhaled, these particles can cause serious health problems. In fact, prolonged exposure further heightens the risk of serious issues like lung cancer, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or silicosis, a lung disease that gets its name from the dust particles.

To help minimize the threat associated with respiratory silica, OSHA developed standards for the construction industry on dealing with the issue. The regulations, which took effect in 2017, decreased the permissible exposure to respirable silica from 250 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (average over an eight-hour shift). The issue is still alive today and won’t be going anywhere soon.

Working in Silica Conditions

One overarching stipulation in the OSHA standards is that housekeeping practices exposing workers to silica should be restricted if there is another feasible option. This requires contractors to do their due diligence in ensuring worker safety is not negligently ignored. When working in silica conditions, respiratory protection is required.

The OSHA requirements also mandate the establishment and implementation of a written exposure control plan. This plan should identify all tasks related to the exposure of silica, as well as what specific methods and procedures are being used to protect workers who may work in areas of high exposure.

From an operations standpoint, there should also be a designated, competent professional who will implement the written plan. In addition, workers should be thoroughly trained on tasks related to their exposure and how to limit it. Detailed records must be maintained on exposure measurements, objective data and medical exams.

Because of the medical risks associated with inhaling silica, the OSHA standards also necessitate that the workers’ health be taken care of. Medical exams, especially chest X-rays and lung function tests should be administered at least every three years for those needing to wear a respirator for 30 or more days a year.

Safety is Not Just an Industry Trend

Construction industry professionals should not just look at the increased focus on worker safety as a mere trend. There are needs across the field. From policies and procedures that reduce exposure, to better training and more effective equipment and technology, silica and safety are hot-button issues to the entire industry.

Removing dust is an important factor in protecting the safety of workers. Some specific tactics to help workers stay safe include utilizing partition walls and exhaust ventilation systems for smaller construction zones. For large construction sites, professional-grade industrial vacuums can help manage heavy-duty dust spills.

Manufacturers are no exception when looking for solutions to the problem. As such, product innovation of late has worked toward solutions that pose lesser risks of silica exposure. For example, the 257 Titanium and Multimix Lite mortars from Laticrete are two new products on the market that are completely silica-free.

Laticrete also launched Latapoxy Biogreen 300— the industry’s first high-strength, chemical-resistant epoxy adhesive made with bio-based material for installing tile and stone. This product was designed to provide an alternative to conventional non-renewable petroleum-derived products, which can contribute to a cleaner environment. This product can also contribute to LEED v4 points.

There’s also the Laticrete Supercap Ready-Mix Delivery Service, a new turnkey service that delivers blended self-leveling underlayment (SLU) through the company’s patented pump truck technology — allowing an unmatched volume of premium cementitious SLU to be delivered directly to the job site. This service significantly saves both time and cost, contractors pay only for what is pumped wet-out-of-the-hose, providing a safer, cleaner work environment. When the only thing that goes in the building is a hose, there is no mixing and no respirable silica dust in the building. That keeps workers safe, exceeding the new OSHA silica dust regulations.

As construction companies will soon face targeted inspections by OSHA agents, it’s important to do everything we can to protect workers and comply with the standards.