The Silent Dangers Of Crystalline Silica: What You Need To Know

A cloud of dust coming from a worker using a circular saw while cutting paving slabs which highlights the invisible but hazardous nature of crystalline silica exposure and the need for awareness and protection.


Workplace hazards come in many forms, but few are as insidious and widespread as crystalline silica. However, because of its fine particle size, crystalline silica often goes unnoticed resulting in Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) and other safety measures, which are critical in environments where silica particles are likely to exist, being overlooked or considered not necessary.

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Understanding what crystalline silica is and the risks it poses is the first step in safeguarding health in the workplace.

What Is Crystalline Silica?

Crystalline silica is a common mineral found in many construction materials, including sand, stone, concrete, and mortar. It is also used in the manufacture of glass, pottery, ceramics, bricks, and artificial stone. The danger from crystalline silica arises when materials containing it are cut, ground, or drilled, creating fine particles of dust that can become airborne and, therefore, easy to inhale.

Inhaling respirable crystalline silica (RCS) dust can lead to severe and even life-limiting respiratory illnesses, notably silicosis, a disease that scars the lungs and diminishes their ability to function. This condition can be disabling or even fatal causing an average of 12 deaths per year. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies crystalline silica as a Group 1 human carcinogen because of its association with lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease. In 2012, the HSE recorded 789 deaths in the UK from lung cancer due to past exposure to crystalline silica, whilst COPD appears to be the possible cause of death for 4000 people every year.

How Can The Health Effects Of Crystalline Silica Be Mitigated?


Control The Dust At The Source

The first line of defence to reduce the risk of your workers being vulnerable to the health risks of crystalline silica is to control the dust at its source. This can be achieved by using water sprays and ventilation systems that aim to capture, bind, or remove dust particles from the air. However, because of the severity of the risk associated with silica dust, even with these effective controls the use of RPE is usually still necessary.

Use High-Quality RPE

A key component of personal protection is a well-fitted respirator. When preventing the inhalation of crystalline silica, it is imperative to use the correct type. Respirators with suitable filters are essential to filter out silica particles, such as FFP3 masks, rubber masks with P3 filtration, or more advanced Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs). For example, lower-grade respirators - FFP2 or FFP1 - are not usually adequate in environments with respirable crystalline silica. If a PAPR is chosen, it is essential to select one that offers a suitable level of protection (APF – Assigned Protection Factor). If the risk is silica, a minimum protection of TH2 (APF20) is required however in some cases TH3 (APF40) might be needed.

Monitor And Decontaminate

Alongside respiratory protection, regular air quality monitoring is also recommended, which helps to assess the level of silica exposure and the effectiveness of the control measures. Additionally, using protective clothing and practising good hygiene are important to prevent the spread of silica dust. Workers should shower and change their clothes before leaving the workplace to avoid accidentally taking silica dust home or into other environments, such as public transport.

Contact Us For Professional Advice

The risks associated with crystalline silica should not be underestimated, so protecting yourself and your team requires a comprehensive understanding of the risks to ensure effective safety measures are implemented. For expert advice about Respiratory Protective Equipment, please get in touch with Fire Safe International today.

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