How to stay safe when encountering silica dust in your workplace

Marble kitchen bench.

The trend towards engineered stone kitchen and bathroom benchtops has seen thousands of Australian workers exposed to unsafe levels of silica dust over the past decade.

It is important to be well-informed about silica dust when working in any work or job site. Recent reports indicate that the number of silica dust incidences in Australia exceeded 350 before the end of 2019. 

What is silica dust?

Crystalline silica, commonly known as silica dust, is a natural mineral found in construction materials such as concrete, bricks, tiles, mortar and engineered stone. When these materials are worked with, the silica is released as fine dust particles that can have harmful effects when inhaled. These dust particles are miniscule and invisible to the human eye.

Both employers and employees have a duty of care for to be informed about the work health and safety laws regarding working with silica in their state or territory.

Where is silica dust commonly found?

According to SafeWork Australia, common activities that can generate silica dust include:

  • Drilling
  • Sanding
  • Grinding
  • Loading
  • Demolishing products that contain silica

Silica is a very common mineral that is found in common materials, including but not limited to: 

  • Soil
  • Sand
  • Concrete
  • Masonry
  • Engineered stone
  • Rock
  • Granite 
  • Landscaping materials 
  • Bricks
  • Tiles 
  • Some common plastic materials 

The amount of crystalline silica in products can vary. Examples include:

  • Engineered stone: 80% to 95%
  • Ceramic tiles: 5% to 45%
  • Autoclaved aerated concrete: 20% to 40%
  • Concrete: less than 30%
  • Brick: 5% to 15%
  • Marble: less than 5%

If you’re not sure if a product contains crystalline silica, always check the safety data sheet (SDS) or other information from the supplier.

Silica dust and cancer 

Silica dust is harmful when inhaled. The silica dust particles are 100 times smaller than a grain of sand meaning inhalation can occur without you noticing or immediately feeling it.

Exposure to silica dust can lead to lung cancer, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary and silicosis (an irreversible scarring and stiffening of the lungs). An estimated 230 people develop lung cancer each year as a result of past exposure to silica dust in the workplace.

Although not all workers will be subject to cancer; the risk of cancer increases with longevity and frequent exposure.

Workers and exposure to silica dust 

In 2011, the Cancer Council estimated approximately 587,000 workers in Australia were exposed to silica dust on their work or job site. From these findings, it was estimated that 5,758 (nearly 10 per cent) of these will develop some form of lung cancer as a result of exposure at some point in their lives.

Those working in the construction, engineering, mining and agricultural industries are at the greatest risk to silica exposure. Common tasks performed in these workplaces that present the highest levels of risk include demolition work, bricklaying, road construction and concrete manufacturing.

Implementing risk management controls when working with silica dust

It is important to implement controls when working with silica dust. Strong risk management controls are the best method to minimise exposure to silica dust.

The first step is awareness; if workers are aware of the risk of exposure in the workplace then they can implement strategies to reduce the risk. SafeWork Australia has outlined a framework for choosing and implementing control measures for silica dust. 

When possible, contact with silica dust should be completely eliminated.

If this is not possible, further control measures should be taken to ensure the safety of all workers. These may include substituting the silica containing materials; isolating workers and others from silica dust; engineering controls with physical methods; ventilation; and local exhaust ventilation. 

It is common that multiple control measures need to be used to protect workers from exposure to silica dust. The control measures which are most effective for your workplace will depend on your industry, work processes and the risk of exposure.

PPE and silica dust

According to SafeWork Australia, before using personal protective equipment (PPE), a risk assessment should be completed to see what other controls can be implemented to help minimise the risk of exposure. These may include avoiding working on the particular material all together or not drilling directly into the silica containing material. Other precautions may involve testing the materials for crystalline silica prior to performing work. 

It is important to note that PPE should only be used as a last resort, after all other risk management controls have been considered.  It should only be used to supplement higher-level control measures or when no other safety measures are available.  

Increasing awareness of silica dust through education 

The best form of prevention to silica dust exposure is awareness.

Our Asbestos, Silica, Drug, Alcohol & Manual Handling Awareness Course is one of our courses designed to educate those working, or wishing to work in the construction industry, to be aware of the harmful implications associated with working with silica containing materials. This may include anyone from entry-level to senior management. 

The Silica Awareness component of this course covers the following: 

  • Introduction to silica
  • Health risks and risk management
  • PPE, air monitoring and health surveillance
  • Types and importance of fit testing
  • Minor routine work and other minor work
  • Clean up routines and techniques

Training can be conducted at one of our dedicated state-of-the-art training facilities, or we can host training sessions at your work or job site. This course complements the existing White Card course to give workers additional skills and knowledge to effectively and safely contribute in the workplace. Find out more by visiting the courses page using the button below.

It is important to spread awareness of the dangers associated when working with and around silica dust. Ensuring you and your employees are aware of the dangers and control measures, is crucial for anyone working with this material.

To find out more about how HSE can help you improve your workplace safety, simply email or you can always call us on 1300 884 978.

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