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What do managers and business owners need to know about silica dust?

Following the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) health and safety management system model, eight simple steps can be taken to avoid worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS).


Designate a responsible person to implement and develop a silica exposure plan

The responsible person should be competent to undertake the task at hand. The exposure plan should cover the following:

  • identification of workplace tasks that may or do involve RCS exposure
  • a risk assessment and description of suitable controls, concentrating where possible on eliminating the risk or extraction systems rather than personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protective equipment (RPE)
  • provide robust procedures, also known as safe systems of work, to eliminate or reduce exposure to RCS and restrict access to high-risk RCS work areas
  • a plan to review associated risk assessments, procedures and the silica exposure plan itself
  • informing workers on what they need to do to manage the risks from working with RCS
  • an inspection schedule to ensure the organisation has frequent inspections.


Complete an organisational silica risk assessment

Consider who might be exposed to silica throughout the organisation. What tasks will they be doing that may exposure them to RCS?

Communicate the risks

Communicate the risks to those who are potentially exposed and involved with tasks involving RCS. As good practice, whether it is law or not in your country, workers who may be exposed to RCS should be informed of the level of risk to health and what precautions they must implement to keep themselves and others safe. Contractors are much more likely to expose RCS if they are unfamiliar with the location, tasks and materials, so consider how you will make the latest version of the silica exposure plan available to them. If workers are going to work in or on someone else’s premises, ensure that you find out and they are informed about any potential RCS exposures they may come across in their tasks.

Implement suitable control measures focusing on eliminating or reducing silica exposure

These will include:

  • eliminating RCS from a task by using alternative products where possible
  • reducing RCS dusts by using materials with lower silica content where possible
  • implementing engineering and administrative controls to reduce RCS exposure
  • providing suitable PPE and RPE, where required, to protect workers.
  1. Provide workers with information, instructions and training on silica.

It is good practice to provide silica awareness training to workers whose working activity may involve exposure to RCS. This education should include where RCS can be found, how to work safely, and how to protect themselves and others from RCS exposure. It is also good practice to demand that any workers of contractors have also received silica awareness training, if their activities potentially involve exposure to RCS. Workers and contractors must be empowered to stop work if they believe they have encountered RCS exposures.

Workers should also be provided with robust procedures when working with RCS, which will reinforce any information and training.


Investigate silica-related incidents

Silica exposure incidents must be investigated to identify causes. The investigation must check:

  • if the silica exposure plan was accurate and shared
  • if local procedures were implemented and followed correctly
  • whether those exposed had been informed of the presence of silica
  • whether those exposed had been provided with relevant training.

A note should be made in the personal records of those exposed. Records should include when the incident happened, how long it lasted, and possible exposure levels.

Exposed workers should be submitted to an organisation health monitoring and surveillance programme.

Monitor to ensure controls are effective and exposure levels are not breached and arrange health surveillance for workers

Monitoring RCS levels is crucial to help prevent exposures. Technological advancements mean that measuring RCS dust is an easier task to complete.

It is important to monitor controls to check whether they are suitable and working to eliminate or reduce RCS exposure.

Health monitoring also has a part to play. Workers should undergo regular health checks by a competent medical professional, this may be through occupational health. These checks will likely include:

  • work history to determine any potential exposures
  • health history to identify any health concerns or symptoms
  • a physical examination of the respiratory system, which may include an x-ray and a pulmonary function test if required
  • testing for latent tuberculosis infection and any other respiratory concerns, as these may increase a worker’s potential to be adversely affected by RCS.


Evaluate and apply learning lessons

After any incident and investigation, learning lessons must be recognised and applied back in to the silica exposure plan and health and safety management system. This will help to prevent and reduce the chance of exposures recurring.

The silica exposure plan should be reviewed regularly. This will ensure it remains as accurate as possible. Good practice would be to complete reviews on an annual basis or sooner, if required. For example, a more frequent review may be required for higher-risk RCS exposures.

Your occupational safety and health (OSH) professional will be able to assist you.