Working with silica and silica-containing products carries potential health risks, particularly due to exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) particles. These hazards are prevalent in various industries, including construction, mining, manufacturing, and abrasive blasting. 

This guide aims to provide essential information and practical recommendations for ensuring the safe handling and management of silica in the workplace. By implementing proper preventive measures, control strategies, and best practices, employers can protect workers from the harmful effects of silica exposure.

Understanding Silica

Silica is a common mineral found in many materials and products used across industries. It is crucial to recognize the sources of silica in the workplace and identify tasks that may involve its release into the air as RCS particles.

What is Silica?

Silica, also known as silicon dioxide (SiO2), is a naturally occurring compound found abundantly in the Earth's crust. It is one of the most common minerals on the planet and has various forms and applications.

Silica exists in both crystalline and amorphous forms. Crystalline silica is found in minerals such as quartz, cristobalite, and tridymite, whereas amorphous silica lacks a defined crystal structure. Quartz is the most abundant and well-known form of crystalline silica.

Silica has a wide range of applications due to its unique properties. Some of its notable uses include:

  • Glass Manufacturing: Silica is a key component in the production of glass. It provides structural strength, transparency, and resistance to heat and chemicals.
  • Construction Materials: Silica is a crucial ingredient in the manufacturing of concrete, cement, and bricks. It improves the strength and durability of these materials.
  • Foundry Casting: Silica-based sands are commonly used in foundries for making moulds and cores in metal casting processes.
  • Ceramics and Pottery: Silica is used in the production of ceramics and pottery to enhance their strength, resistance to thermal shock, and glaze formulation.
  • Electronics and Semiconductors: Silica plays a vital role in the manufacturing of electronic components, such as silicon chips and fibre optics, due to its electrical properties.
  • Filtration and Purification: Silica is employed in water filtration systems, both in industrial and domestic settings, to remove impurities and improve water quality.
  • Personal Care Products: Silica is used in the formulation of cosmetics, toothpaste, and other personal care products as an abrasive, thickening agent, or absorbent.

It's important to note that crystalline silica, particularly in fine airborne particles, can pose health risks when inhaled. Prolonged exposure to respirable crystalline silica can lead to respiratory issues, such as silicosis, and other lung diseases. Therefore, appropriate safety measures should be taken when handling or working with crystalline silica.

Health Effects and Risk Management

Exposure to respirable crystalline silica particles can lead to severe health conditions, including silicosis, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Effective risk management is vital in preventing or minimising exposure. A hierarchy of control measures should be implemented, starting with eliminating or substituting silica-containing products. 

Engineering controls, such as local exhaust ventilation and wet methods, help minimise the generation and dispersion of RCS particles. 

Administrative controls and personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used in conjunction with engineering controls to further reduce exposure risks.

Control Measures

Implementing engineering controls is critical for minimising silica exposure. These measures include using local exhaust ventilation systems, wet methods, and isolation enclosures. 

Regular maintenance and inspection of control measures ensure their ongoing effectiveness. Administrative controls, such as work practices, training, and signage, complement engineering controls and help create a safe working environment.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

When engineering and administrative controls are insufficient, PPE plays a vital role in protecting workers from silica exposure. 

Proper selection, use, and maintenance of respiratory protective equipment (RPE), such as respirators, are essential. 

Additionally, appropriate PPE, including gloves, protective clothing, and eye and face protection, should be provided based on the specific workplace requirements.

Training and Supervision

Comprehensive training and supervision programs are crucial for raising awareness and educating workers about the hazards of silica exposure. 

Training should cover the identification of silica-containing products, understanding control measures, safe work practices, and emergency response procedures. 

Supervisors should monitor and provide guidance to ensure compliance with safety procedures and the effective implementation of control measures.

Health Monitoring and Surveillance

To manage the potential health impacts of silica exposure, health monitoring and surveillance programs should be established. These programs may include medical examinations, lung function tests, chest X-rays, and other relevant assessments. Accurate records of exposure data, health monitoring results, and worker information should be maintained.

Find out more about Crystalline Silica Health Monitoring Assessments and what they include. 

Summary and Take Home Message

Working safely with silica and silica-containing products is of utmost importance to protect workers from the health hazards associated with silica exposure. 

By implementing preventive measures, control strategies, and appropriate training, employers can create a safe working environment and minimise the risks posed by respirable crystalline silica particles. 

Remember, the well-being and safety of workers should always be a top priority in every workplace.