Know the rules when using your tools

National Safe Work Month

October is National Safe Work Month

If you work as a stonemason, miner, construction worker, farmer or engineer, you’re at the greatest risk of exposure to silica dust. Do you know the rules when using your tools? This Safe Work Month, "think safe, work safe, be safe". Take two minutes to complete the Healthy Lungs at Work Quiz to learn the preventative measures you can take to protect yourself and your lungs (and loved ones) around silica-containing materials.
Complete the Healthy Lungs at Work Quiz

What is silica?

Silica is a naturally occurring mineral found in soil, sand, granite and many other rocks. Silica can occur in non-crystalline and crystalline forms, although it’s the crystalline form that’s hazardous to health. Silica is also found in a number of commercial products, such as artificial (engineered) stone, bricks, concrete, tiles and plastics.

What can happen if I'm exposed to silica?

When silica-containing materials are cut, ground, drilled or polished (or worked on in any way that disturbs the natural silica content), a fine dust, known as respirable crystalline silica dust, is released. Over time, inhaling this dust causes inflammation which leads to scarring of the lung tissue. This can cause stiffening of the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. This is known as silicosis. Exposure to silica dust can also cause other serious health conditions, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, lung cancer and kidney disease, as well as autoimmune conditions and a predisposition to infections.

Am I at risk of exposure to silica dust?

Anyone performing certain tasks with silica-containing materials is at risk of exposure to silica dust. However, if you work as a stonemason, miner, construction worker, farmer or engineer, you’re at the greatest risk of exposure to silica dust.

What are the symptoms of silicosis?

Initially, people may not notice any symptoms. Over time, as the disease progresses, symptoms slowly develop, even if exposure to silica dust has ceased. This may occur over a matter of months but can take more than ten years, so even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms, you must have regular check-ups with your doctor and discuss your occupational history (e.g. your exposure). A more rare type of silicosis, called acute silicosis, occurs with short term exposure to high levels of silica dust. In these cases, symptoms start early and can be severe and progressive.

Shortness of breath

Dry or productive (sputum) cough

Wheeze

Tiredness

Chest pain

Weight loss

Healthy Lungs at Work Quiz

To check in with your lung health, take our anonymous Healthy Lungs at Work Quiz. This short quiz will take you through risk factors and symptom history (if applicable), and what this may mean for your lung health.
Complete the Healthy Lungs at Work Quiz

How can I protect myself?

To prevent silicosis and other Occupational Lung Diseases, it’s essential to know the rules when using your toolsThe Hierarchy of Controls is a system your employer must implement under Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) regulationsIt’s ranked from the highest level of protection and reliability (elimination) to the lowest (PPE) and is designed to eliminate or minimise health and safety risks. While it’s a requirement for your employer to implement the Hierarchy of Controls, you are required to follow this. Further, understanding the regulations can help you to identify potential risks in your workplace and better protect yourself and your mates. 

Hierarchy of controls

1

Eliminate the hazard entirely

In many cases, eliminating silica dust is not practicable, particularly if the end product cannot be made without generating it.
2

Substitute for a safer product

For example, using products with a lower percentage of silica (e.g. abrasive blasting agents) or using products that are silica free, if possible.
3

Engineering controls

Isolate the risk and adapt the environment or processes. For example, designating areas for tasks that generate silica dust to isolate the hazard or adapting the environment or processes. Local exhaust ventilation, wet cutting or using tools with dust collection attachments fall into this category.
4

Administrative controls

Implement training, rules and procedures. For example, have written rules and policies for working with silica-containing products or rotate workers’ shifts.
5

PPE

Wear properly fitted personal protective equipment, such as respiratory protective equipment like respirators, and work clothing that doesn’t collect dust. PPE is the least effective control measure and shouldn’t be used on its own. It is used only when all of the other controls have failed to remove the risk of being exposed to silica dust completely.

How else can I protect myself if I'm at risk?

If you’re working with silica dust and there is a significant risk to your health because of your exposure, you must undergo regular health monitoring. Speak to your employer – they are required to organise this for you and cover the costs under WHS regulations. 

It’s also important to talk to your doctor if you have underlying medical problems that working with silica dust may make worse – like existing kidney or lung disease.   

If I’m an employer, how do I protect my employees?

As an employer, you have a responsibility to protect your employees from developing an Occupational Lung Disease. Silica dust is just one of many hazardous agents your employees may be exposed to.  

  •  Organise for your employees to participate in health monitoring  – Under WHS regulations, you must organise health monitoring for your employees if they carry out ongoing work using, handling, generating or storing crystalline silica and there is a significant risk to their health because of their exposure.
  • Conform to Workplace Exposure Standards (WES)Across Australia, the WES for respirable crystalline silica is currently 0.05mg/m3, averaged over an eight-hour day (except in Tasmania, where it is 0.1mg/m3). Compliance with the WES is required under WHS laws in each jurisdiction. This means that you must ensure that no one at your workplace is exposed to silica above the exposure standard. You must also reduce exposures so far as is reasonably practicable. 
Learn more ways to protect your employees