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Silica Dust – What you Must Know

Silica fume is added to Portland cement to add compressive strength, bond strength, abrasion resistance and durability. Adding silica also reduces the permeability of concrete and prevents water in the concrete coming to the surface. The benefits are clear and this is why it is so extensively used.

However, silica dust is harmful when inhaled and can lead to the development of serious lung diseases. Silica fume has ultra-fine particles (less than 1 μm in diameter), which is around 100 times smaller than the average size of cement particles or a grain of sand. Because the particles of silica dust are so fine you can breathe it in without knowing.

When silica dust enters the lungs, the tiny particles settle deep in your lungs and scar patches form on lung tissue. These particles can potentially lead to lung cancer, silicosis (an irreversible stiffening of the lungs which makes it hard to breathe), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease. That is why all States and Territories in Australia have work health and safety laws to prevent dust getting into the lungs in the first place.

You can be exposed to silica dust if your work involves;

  • breaking, crushing, grinding or milling material containing silica dust
  • sand blasting or casting
  • paving, surfacing or cement finishing
  • bricklaying
  • demolition work

What YOU can do to protect your lungs

There are a number of measures you can take to work safely and prevent silica dust entering your lungs. The Australian Cancer Council recommends the following steps:

  1. Use the correct equipment: When grinding, cutting, drilling or polishing cement, ensure your machine is fitted with the appropriate dust extractor for the tool being used. The vacuum should be fitted directly on the machine have a HEPA 13 cartridge filter which has a minimum 99.99% filtration rate (H Class). Filters should be cleaned and maintained regularly.
  2. Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE): Most personal respirators can not prevent all silica particles from being breathed in and should be used in combination with other controls. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear them. When working with silica dust, the more protection the better. For RPE to be effective, ensure it is worn correctly and fits properly. If you have a beard or stubble, half masks will not give protection, therefore you are better to use a positive air respirator like the Powercap Infinity.
  3. Water suppression: When possible, wet dust down at the point of dust generation. This prevents the particles from becoming airborne. Many concrete cutting tools, for example, are fitted with an integrated water delivery system. Water is sprayed onto the blade as it is cutting so dust particles don’t even have a chance to become airborne.
  4. PPE: If possible, wear disposable clothing. If you don’t have disposable ones, don’t take dusty clothes home to wash. Launder them at work if possible.

Clean up: When cleaning up, remove dust from all surfaces by using a dust class M or H vacuum cleaner or wet methods. Don’t dry sweep using a broom or compressed air.

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