Silica Dust, Changing Regulations and a Continuing Threat
Changes are coming to how we handle Engineered Stone and Respirable Crystalline Silica Dust (RCS). We discussed this topic in 2019 when it was a talking point in the industry; in 2021, we updated many of our SWMS in line with regulatory changes. Now, in 2023, Safe Work Australia is moving on the topic again. They have sought and now closed submissions, and we await their findings. This article will tell you what we know about the changes and help you address the safety essentials.
You may have heard about the not-so-clever guy who was ordering a pizza. As the pizza came out of the oven, he was asked, "Should I cut it into six pieces or twelve?" He responded, "Six, please. I could never eat twelve!" Yes, it's a dad joke, but it makes a point. Sometimes our methods can give us false confidence and fool us into thinking we're achieving safety levels we are not. Whether our cutting creates pizza crumbs or Silica dust, we need to ensure we face the problem.
In this article, we'll take a look at the following:
- The Silica Dust Basics.
- Silica Dust Dangers for Workers and Businesses.
- Keeping up with the Risks and the Regulations.
- Silica Dust, Control Measures and What You Can Do.
- What changes are (possibly) coming.
- Resources we provide and other ways we can help.
The Silica Dust Basics.
Silica is given different names based on its form at any point in time - not unlike water, steam and ice.
- Silica, also known as Crystalline Silica, is a widely used mineral used in a range of products, many sectors and various industries.
- Silica Dust is Silica that has been fragmented into dust (perhaps by crushing or sawing).
- When this dust becomes airborne, and inhalation becomes possible, we call it Respirable Crystalline Silica or RCS.
Exposure to this Silica dust is disturbingly common in the mining, construction and engineering industries. The key to achieving safety is to reduce workers' exposure to airborne particles.
Crystalline Silica is in many building and construction products, including quartz, concrete, tiles, bricks, gravel, sand, natural stone, rock, and even some plastics. It is also used in engineered stone products, like composite stone, and is a commonly encountered threat when fabricating or renovating kitchen benchtops.
Some examples of rock and rock products and their silica density include [a]:
- Marble and limestone: 2% silica.
- Slate, shale and granite: 22-40%
- Natural sandstone: 70 to 95%
- Engineered stone: Up to 97%
- Aggregates, mortar and concrete: Highly varied
The Cancer Council of Australia classify silica dust in the same 'inorganic dust' grouping as asbestos and consider it a "prioritised occupational carcinogen". [b]
How much respirable silica dust is too much? Existing WHS/OH&S regulations consider a 0.05 mg/m3 to be harmful. That's like standing in a broom cupboard (a cubic metre) and shaking the dust off a five-cent coin - and encountering no other dust during the next eight hours. It's not a lot - and if that workplace exposure standard changes, it will only get tougher to meet. So, we'd better get it right.
Silica Dust Dangers for People.
If Silica dust is inhaled, and they breathe in enough of it, they can develop Silicosis, which can contribute to kidney disease, lung cancer and Tuberculosis. [c]
Silicosis is a mongrel and debilitating disease that causes scarring of the lungs. At best, sufferers will experience irresolvable shortness of breath. At worst, complications can occur that lead to death. We won't labour the point, but if you'd like to learn more about the life-sucking misery this disease brings, read this worker's account.
In 2019, the national developing silicosis case count was estimated at 350, and for sufferers of accelerated Silicosis, the incidence rate was rising.
According to one doctor, there is a 30 per cent likelihood of developing the disease if exposed to sufficient concentrations for more than three years [d]. However, Silicosis can still develop over a decade, even at low exposure. There have also been cases reported within weeks of intensive exposure.
If you'd like to learn more about the other flow on diseases Silica Dust particles cause, we discussed these in our 2019 article "A Safe Work Procedure for Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS)". We provide more information on Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) and Cancer.
Every exposure to silica dust is significant and cumulatively toxic. Silica dust is a stealth killer that does not provide a warning, announce its presence, discriminate or negotiate.
Silica Dust Dangers for Businesses.
You probably don't need to hear this, but Silica Dust exposure standards are being taken VERY seriously. One example should make the point.
In 2018 an informant told WorkSafe Tasmania of unsafe work practices at a business. Investigators found they were dry-cutting and shaping engineered stone products in an unsafe manner. Specifically:
- Even though safety data sheets were in use and specific warning signs existed, there needed to be better workplace awareness of the risk.
- There was no air monitoring in place.
- No worker health monitoring was occurring.
- Respiratory protection was not provided.
- Cleaning methods also produced Silica Dust.
- Isolation screens or booths did not exist.
The company was charged under Section 32 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2012. They pleaded guilty, were convicted and then fined $500,000. [e]
What's this all mean? What's left when the dust settles (pun intended)? It pays to take this topic seriously!
Silica Dust Control Measures: What Can You Do?
Remember that when silica dust gets airborne, we refer to it as Respirable Crystalline Silica (or RCS). There are five RCS control steps:
- Identify the RCS hazards (look at people, products and processes).
- Control the risk of exposure to RCS.
- Conduct ongoing air monitoring
- Provide health monitoring for workers.
- Continue to maintain and review these control measures.
Identifying the silica dust hazards and risks involves looking beyond the obvious. There is an obvious risk when slicing or draining concrete and engineered stone. There is a less obvious risk when crushing, moving, dumping, drilling, hammering, sweeping, air-blowing, jackhammering, scraping, blasting or grinding. In other words, there is a risk whenever you work with a product that contains it.
There are a range of options to control exposure to silica dust particles. As with other controls, they are situational and vary according to need. Respiratory protective equipment, local exhaust ventilation, wet cutting and other means of water suppression are among the obvious responses. Ceasing from dry methods of stone cutting and hydraulic fracturing is also wise. Our Safe Work Method Statements, particularly our comprehensive RCS Dust Control SWMS, will help you with this.
Under WHS Regulation 50, 'Monitoring airborne contaminant levels', a PCBU is required to measure air concentrations when working with contaminants. As a general rule, the higher the concentration of RCS in the air, the greater the risk, but it's not always that simple. It's too complicated a topic for us to explore here, but you can learn more about authorised personnel, baselines, triggers, methods and reporting by reviewing Section 3.2 of the code.
The regulations also require ongoing health monitoring. If you are a PCBU and have workers exposed to a significant risk of exposure to silica dust, you must provide and pay for this health monitoring. The goal is to identify early signs of adverse health as soon as possible and to help identify if control measures are working effectively. Again, it's a big topic and involves complicated implementation. If you prefer to go DIY on the subject, you'll find it in Section 3.2 of the code and WHS Regulation Part 7.1 Division 6 .
You should take a consultative approach with workers in all of the above. Conversely, if a worker refuses to follow control methods, wear PPE or participate in health monitoring, as PCBU you can, and arguably always should, take action to meet your WHS obligations. Workers must take reasonable care and comply with work health and safety instructions, including health monitoring.
You should also be aware of our wealth of resources and tools to help you. Rather than trying to go it alone, the simplest solution is to use professionally prepared resources that address the risks and comply with the regulations. We can help you with the following:
- Higher level WHS/OH&S management documents,
- Dedicated Silica Dust Safe Work Method Statements,
- Any of the 27 other Silica related SWMS, or
- Simple clarification and understanding.
If you follow the instructions and employ reasonable due diligence, your workers and business can remain safe and legal. Call us on 1800 304 336 for assistance.
What Changes are (possibly) Coming?
Change is almost inevitable - if not for legitimate reasons, then due to the need to validate the money spent on consultations and reviews. That's not to rubbish the process or the need for regulation; it's just an honest statement about how things get done.
The RCS exposure limit was halved in 2019 from 0.1 mg/m3 to 0.05 mg/m3. Then, in 2021, Safe Work Australia released a new Model Code of Practice.
Then, as now, we were responsive, made the changes to our resources, contacted our existing customers and advised them, and ensured discounted solutions were available to them. This time it will be the same.
Will Engineered Stone Products be Banned?
In November 2022, the CFMEU announced [f] that if engineered stone production, importation and use was not banned by July 2024, they would ban their 120,000 members from handling it. Then, on 2 March 2023, Safe Work Australia launched a consultation on this question. They asked for submissions for one month, and now they are reviewing the 112 they received.
Contributions were received from various companies that will face hard times or extinction if it is banned, as well as industry groups, worker groups and individuals. Many anonymous submissions were also received. You can view them via the consultations entry portal if it interests you.
They may come back and ban certain products and processes entirely. Other possible changes include changes to the following:
- On-tool capture processes and mechanisms,
- Administrative tools like Safe Work Method Statements.
- Air density tolerances.
- Air monitoring technology standards.
- Product labelling and cautions.
- Protocols for clean up, disposal and other secondary exposure risks.
- Control policy refinements.
Now, we await their findings. It's likely to take a while.
As soon as they announce, we'll act on any requirements, and if you're a customer that has purchased a resource related to silica dust particle management, we'll also let you know.
Resources we Provide and Other Ways we can Help.
We've already mentioned them, but here are some of the ways we can help you manage this dynamic and devilish hazard:
- Our higher-level WHS/OH&S management documents,
- Dedicated Silica Dust Safe Work Method Statements,
- Any of the 27 other Silica related SWMS, or
- A clarifying chat over the phone.
Silica dust is a complex problem, and by providing informed and dedicated support, we can help you get ahead of it. Call us on 1800 304 336 for assistance or request a call back by using the on-site contact form. We look forward to your call.
- Source [a] "What is crystalline silica?" https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/safety-topic/hazards/crystalline-silica-and-silicosis
- Source [b] Workplace Cancer, The Cancer Council.
- Source [c]: The association between silica exposure, Silicosis and Tuberculosis: a systematic review and meta-analysis https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-021-10711-1
- Source [d] "Silicosis cases in Australia rising, with thousands exposed to unsafe quantities of silica in past decade" https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-26/silicosis-cases-rapidly-climbing-more-toxic-asbestos-expert-says/11826332
- Source [e] Summaries of prosecutions (search) at https://worksafe.tas.gov.au/topics/laws-and-compliance/enforcement-and-prosecutions/prosecutions/court-summaries#Engineered-stone-benchtop-manufacturer-fined-after-three-workers-contract-silicosis
- Source [f] "Risky, silicosis-causing stone product must be banned, construction union tells government" https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-11-23/cfmeu-tells-government-stone-product-must-be-banned/101686094