Silica is the second most common mineral on earth. It’s a basic component of soil, sand and many rocks; things we’re all exposed to, safely, every day.

So it’s hard to imagine that the dust from this common mineral, can be a deadly hazard. In fact it is the crystalline and respirable (small particle) fractions of silica that are hazardous. Silica is completely harmless when dormant, but when disturbed and inhaled it can cause a potentially fatal lung disease called silicosis, as well as bronchitis, tuberculosis and lung cancer.

Silica dust

When you consider that silica is found in many common construction materials – such as rock and sand; topsoil and fill; concrete, cement and mortar; masonry, brick and tile; granite, sandstone and slate; asphalt containing rock and stone; and fibrous-cement board – it’s easy to see that this could present a serious challenge.

According to Robert Waterhouse, Enform’s program manager of industry development, most people don’t realize how dangerous crystalline silica can be. “The occupational exposure limits for silica exposure are half those for elemental lead,” he says. “If you asked a worker to work in a cloud of lead dust, they would have a definite opinion on how reasonable this request was, and expectations on controls. But if it was rock dust, many workers might not give it a second thought. This is something that needs to change.”

In July 2014, PSAC submitted a proposal for the development of industry silica resources. The resulting Silica Exposure Control Plan (ECP) has been designed to help upstream industry employers proactively manage the hazards involved in exposure to silica.

The program includes a template for a comprehensive risk management program, as well as the tools and resources needed by both employers and workers. The information provided includes:

  • The health hazards posed by silica – including exposure factors, limits and symptoms.
  • Processes for risk identification, assessment and control.
  • An outline of responsibilities for employers, prime contractors, supervisors and workers.

For more information, access The Plan, Guidance Sheets and supporting training and awareness tools.