Silicosis. It’s a disabling and often fatal disease that can strike landscape crew members, even those as young as in their 20s. Yet many landscape company owners are unaware of the hazards of crystalline silica dust and how to protect their workers.
Silicosis, which often has no symptoms in its early stages, develops as a result of inhaling dust containing tiny particles of crystalline silica. Crystalline silica, which is a major part of the earth’s crust, can be found in many materials at landscape construction sites. Among these are soil, sand, brick, block, mortar and concrete. Other materials containing silica that may be present at general construction sites where your crews are working include cement board, roofing aggregate, and some drywall joint compounds.
Your crew members may be breathing in harmful silica dust and not even know it. That’s because the small particles of crystalline silica that get into the air are often not visible—and it can take 20 years or longer for the chronic form of silicosis to develop. In the meantime, though, as a crew member inhales the dust, silica particles can scar the lungs, causing the disabling, irreversible and incurable lung disease called silicosis.
The presence of silica in the lungs can also weaken the body’s ability to fight infections, so infectious illnesses such as pulmonary tuberculosis can develop. In addition, work-related exposure to crystalline silica can cause lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and may be related to kidney disease and other adverse health effects.
Silicosis is a progressive disease, so removing a worker from the job does not stop its progression. As silicosis progresses, symptoms may include severe cough, chest pains, weight loss, fever, weakness, night sweats, shortness of breath, respiratory failure and/or death. (See “Resources for Employers” on page 26 for a link to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Health Hazard Review: Health Effects of Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica, where you can learn about other adverse health effects of occupational crystalline silica exposure.)
Certain tasks performed by landscape crew members may generate crystalline silica dust. Among these are:
• Loading, hauling and dumping rock
• Chipping, hammering, drilling, sawing and grinding concrete or masonry
• Grinding mortar
• Demolishing concrete or masonry structures
• Abrasive blasting (using sand as the abrasive or where the blasted surface contains silica, such as concrete)
• Dry sweeping or pressurized air blowing (concrete or dust)
• Using a jackhammer or chipper
• Using such mobile excavation equipment as a skid-steer loader, grader, bulldozer or truck
Specific jobs your crew members may be performing that could expose them to silica dust include constructing paver patios (sawing so the pavers fit together, especially circular patios because of the additional cuts that must be made), demolishing an old wall, building a fire pit or barbecue pit, cutting out curb using a concrete saw, or cutting off a piece of the end of a driveway.
Here is some more information about silicosis and silica dust:
• It is estimated that more than one million workers in the United States are at risk of developing silicosis each year.
• Although the number of reported silicosis deaths per year is about 160, the actual number is believed to be much higher. In addition, hundreds more workers each year become disabled as a result of the disease.
• NIOSH recently noted that workers between the ages of 15 and 44 continue to die of silicosis. This indicates that overexposures to silica dust are still occurring at worksites, despite the existence of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) exposure limits. (See “Resources for Employers” for more information on OSHA’s Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) for crystalline silica.)
• A failure to take steps to control workers’ exposure to silica dust can land your company in trouble with OSHA.