Silica: Supply and demand, and worker safety.
Here in New Zealand, we love our kitchens. Both innovation and a high standard in product quality are expected by consumers. We do that well in many NZ workplaces.
Also, here in NZ, there is an increasing awareness of the ethics surrounding sourcing materials and products.
The person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) must consider the potential health issues resulting from exposure to crystalline silica. The risks can be mitigated by good risk management practices such as the provision of information and training, to help protect workers from known health risks. With silica, the risk is related specifically to the breathable dust that is produced when dry-cutting manufactured stone.
To ensure workers’ safety in the workplace, workers must be informed of the risks and hazards they may be exposed to at work. This is legally required in NZ workplaces (Health and Safety at Work Act 2015) and can be achieved, for example, through toolbox meeting reminders and inhouse Health and Safety Training Workshops by a Safety Management Consultant. This team approach, including worker engagement and participation, improve assessment and control of workplace health hazards and risks. Collaboration and a greater understanding of risks encourage buy-in from all participants.
Crystalline silica (also one of the delightful parts of our beaches) is a primary component of concrete, including manufactured stone benchtops. Natural stone has a far lower silica component but still poses a significant risk. Dry-cutting stone benchtops (and other forms of concrete and stone) poses a high risk of fatal lung disease and other risks (such as auto-immune disease) to the worker.
The NZ Occupational Hygiene Society (NZOHS) is in the process of developing a website to address, amongst other health risks, the known issues around silica dust. More detail on the scientific data is available at https://www.breathefreely.co.nz/stone/
NZOHS also provides useful resources on their website for workplaces to support the management of the health and wellbeing of workers.
WorkSafe NZ also has information about the risks and management of crystalline silica dust at https://worksafe.govt.nz/topic-and-industry/dust/silica-dust-in-the-workplace/
Key findings of studies undertaken in Australia about the health effects of crystalline silica include:
- Young workers exposed to breathable silica dust for as little as 6-12 months have been diagnosed with silica-related lung disease, which in some cases has been fatal.
- Grinding and cutting produce the dust particle size that can enter the respiratory system and cause scarring, resulting in the failure of the lungs to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream.
- Chest x-rays do not provide evidence of the damage soon enough to initiate changes that would protect the worker from a fatal illness.
- Inhaled silica can produce autoimmune disease and kidney disease as well as lung diseases.
- Along with all other kinds of dust, even a small exposure can lead to chronic and acute respiratory disorders such as asthma and other breathing difficulties.
Some controls to reduce exposure include:
- Choosing a different, less hazardous material to work with i.e. elimination/substitution.
- Engineering controls such as wetting the material to control dust, including immersive cutting.
- Well-calibrated dust identification and extraction systems.
- Controlled dust-exposure times for workers.
- Maintaining a high standard and frequency of cleaning the dust from the work area.
- Ensuring all workers are informed and understand the risks of exposures, through health interventions and health and safety training workshops.
- Regular risk assessments by qualified personnel such as engineers; occupational health specialists e.g. hygienists and occupational health nurses.
- As a last consideration, the use of PPE (personal protective equipment) which has been fit-tested and is specifically approved for the work being undertaken may provide additional protection. It is important to remember that there are limits to the value of PPE, so it must not be the first consideration, and is used only for an appropriately limited time. Details such as safe storage of PPE must be part of the health and safety training provided to each worker, and health monitoring must be provided by the employer through an appropriate Occupational Health Service.
If you are considering the installation or modification of any of the silica-based products for your home or workplace, please do ensure you have access to a safely managed workplace from which to purchase the product or services. Asking a question about the methods of production may be a great place to start. In this way, you will potentially contribute to the improved wellbeing of, or even saving the life of our young and older workers.
Contact us for opportunities to provide your workers with Health and Safety Training Workshops for a variety of risk management topics.
Occupational Health Nurse and HASANZ Registered Health and Safety Management Consultant