Silica dust: The dangers and how to protect yourself

21 August 2018

As a leading groundworks and civil engineering company in the UK, it’s our job to ensure the Health and Safety of all groundworkers who join our gangs. And that doesn’t just go for the hazards you can clearly see around you, but those that are invisible to the eye too.

Silica dust, or Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS), is one such example. This very fine dust is so small it’s impossible to see under normal lighting. It presents a very real and present danger to the health of our workers that for the most part isn’t immediately obvious.

Silica is contained within common construction materials such as bricks, concrete and mortar, materials our groundworkers regularly come into contact with on our developer’s sites. Even though silica itself is a natural substance, long-term exposure to silica dust can have devastating health consequences. In fact, the effects are so severe that silica is now being referred to throughout the industry as ‘the new asbestos’.

Unfortunately coming into contact with silica dust is unavoidable in our line of work. The dust is a by-product of many of the everyday tasks our groundworkers need to perform as part of their role on site, such as cutting and drilling tiles, bricks and concrete, as well as grinding and polishing these materials too. All key parts of a groundworker's responsibilities in getting our clients' developments off the ground. So it couldn’t be more important to take all available precautions while performing these tasks.

Mackoy Groundworks Health and Safety Protecting from Silica Dust Emerging when Cutting Slabs

Prolonged exposure to silica dust has been linked to instances of lung cancer, silicosis (severe breathing problems and lung infections), bronchitis and emphysema. All of which cause severe breathlessness and in the worst affected cases can ultimately end in fatality. It’s not just high volumes of silica dust that do the greatest damage either, research has discovered that inhaling or ingesting just a tiny bit of silica dust each day (tiny when compared to the size of a penny coin in fact) is enough to do permanent harm. Most symptoms of silica-related diseases present themselves years down the line, in some cases long after exposure to the dust has ceased.

Fortunately awareness of the dangers presented by close contact with silica dust in the workplace is the first step in actively avoiding exposure. At Mackoy we’ve introduced a number of initiatives to ensure our groundworkers stay fully protected, and comply with best safety practice when exposed to silica dust on site.

The most important control we have in the fight against silica dust is dust suppression and for this reason all our Disc Cutters are provided with water dust suppression kits.

In addition the importance of the facemasks cannot be over stated in the fight against silica dust exposure. But they’re only effective when all air gaps are fully sealed around the wearer’s mouth and nose. Creating a tight seal prevents silica dust from getting inside the mask and entering an operative’s airways, which is why we use Face Fit testing for all facemasks at Mackoy. Face Fit testing allows us to properly measure our operatives to ensure that the facemask actually works. It’s a vital part of keeping our team safe from silica dust exposure on our worksites.

In addition to Face Fit testing we also issue our groundworkers with guidelines on the operation of Disc Cutters. They are a key part of our on site toolkit, and something our groundworkers use to cut blocks, beams, stone, brick, and other construction materials, on site everyday. Each of these materials is a known producer of silica dust in the UK, and the process of cutting them using a Disc Cutter, generates a lot of dust into the air.

Only Abrasive Wheels trained operatives are permitted to operate Disc Cutters as a rule on our worksites, and each one has been fully trained to comprehensively carry out a series of pre-checks before operating the tool. We also insist on goggles and ear defenders (as well as Fit Test facemasks) when carrying out any disc cutting duties. Together with water dust suppression, to keep cutting surfaces wet, thereby reducing the amount of dust generated during the process.

Where necessary our operatives set up exclusion zones to minimise dust exposure to other workers on site, and to cease operations when anyone passes nearby. It’s also our policy to minimise the amount of time our groundworkers spend disc cutting per day, and we encourage trained members of our on site team to rotate this task, so no single employee is sustaining prolonged exposure.

But it’s not just silica dust that can cause problems for our workers. In spates of dry weather (like the recent spell we’ve been having here in the South) dust in general becomes a big issue on our building sites, as the high temperatures and absence of moisture causes the ground to dry out. At times like this just driving plant around site is enough to throw up a dust cloud. So you can only imagine the consequences of carrying out excavation works during dry spells.

As with silica dust, regular exposure to surface dust can also cause respiratory problems for our workers, including asthma, lung and nasal cancers. It’s important that anyone working in construction during prolonged spells of hot weather takes extra preventative measures to protect their eyes, mouths, nose and ears, and adjusts their working practices to minimise bouts of dust in the air. We use controls such as reducing the speed that plant and vehicles move around site, dampening down surfaces, and keeping all vehicle traffic to designated roadways where possible. Road sweepers can also be an effective means of removing excessive dust as it’s being generated.

These measures are just some of the proactive ways we at Mackoy Ltd deal with the issue of dust on our worksites, and the threat it poses to the wellbeing of our groundworkers and those that enter our workspaces on a daily basis. Facemask Fit Testing is now a mandatory requirement for every new employee we take on, together with awareness training, so everyone on our gangs know the risks associated with silica on site – and how to stay safe.

To find out more about our Health & Safety best practice at Mackoy take a look at this Q&A with our SHEQ Manager David Bacon, or see our Health and Safety page for examples of our processes, as well as industry accreditations.

Categories: Groundworks , Health and Safety

Receive our Newsletter

Fill in your name and email address and we'll keep you up to date with our latest Mackoy news and developments. (by entering your details you consent to Mackoy sending emails)