According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), more than two million workers in the United States are exposed to silica dust. Despite being recognized as a hazard for many years, workers in various occupations have continued to be exposed to silica due to:
- Inadequate training
- Inadequate personal protective equipment
- Defective personal protective equipment
Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is equipment employees use to ensure safety. PPE protects the human body and prevents exposure to harmful substances or hazards. Some examples of commonly-used PPE include:
- Eye protection
- Hard hats
- Steel-toe boots
- Protective gloves
- Noise reduction ear plugs
OSHA requires employers to assess work environments and provide PPE when hazards exist. This includes work environments where dust or other substances may be inhaled.
Silica Dust Exposure Limits
OSHA set exposure limits for silica dust more than 40 years ago, but in 2016, it became apparent that those limits were not adequately protecting workers. Therefore, in 2016, two new limits were set – one for the maritime and general industries, and one for the construction industry.
The new exposure limits were set at 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air. This level would be measured over an eight-hour average.
In addition to the new exposure limit, the new regulations include provisions and new requirements for employers. Employers must:
- Conduct an assessment
- Utilize exposure control methods
- Provide respiratory protection
- Provide medical surveillance
- Keep records of compliance with regulations
OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urge employers to provide PPE to workers who may work around silica dust. Respiratory protective gear is the primary recommendation, though OSHA also recommends providing protective clothing to prevent workers from moving dust from one place to another.
Defective Personal Protective Equipment
Above all else, the first line of defense against silica dust exposure is wearing proper PPE. While employers must provide PPE to workers, both employers and workers have a responsibility to maintain PPE and report defects. Defective PPE should be replaced with properly functioning PPE immediately.
Ensuring that workers do not use defective PPE requires compliance of all parties involved.
- Workers – Workers must report defective PPE to their employer at the first sign that the device is not working properly.
- Employers – Employers must replace defective PPE. Workers should not be allowed to use defective safety gear. Employers may contact the manufacturer about any warranty on defective gear.
- Manufacturers – PPE must be manufactured within safety and health guidelines. Products that are deemed defective should be subject to a safety alert or recall.
Defective PPE is dangerous to workers for many reasons. Not only does defective PPE not protect workers from hazards, but faulty gear itself can certainly become dangerous if it is broken or does not function as intended.
Defective Personal Protective Equipment and Silicosis
PPE is crucial for workers who may be exposed to silica dust because long-term or concentrated exposure to silica dust has been linked to development of silicosis, which is an incurable lung disease.
When silica dust particles are inhaled into the lungs, they attach to soft tissue and begin to form nodules. Consequently, these nodules can damage tissue and cause fluid buildup, which leads to reduced oxygen levels and compromised respiratory function. Sometimes the symptoms of silicosis develop within weeks of exposure, and other times it can take decades before a diagnosis is made.
Each year, at least 100 occupational-related deaths are linked to silicosis. These deaths could potentially be prevented with proper use of PPE. Furthermore, deaths and injuries can be prevented if defective PPE is removed from the workforce.