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Silica safety

By and |  February 3, 2015

Understanding dust sources to support healthier work practices.

Exposure to silica and other respirable dust continues to be a health hazard for workers in the aggregates industry. When tracking exposure by job classification, bag machine operators and bag stackers are consistently at the top of the list of individuals exposed to dust on the job. The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) sought to understand the daily risks that workers encounter because of overexposure to silica dust. NIOSH also investigated how these workers perceived the risks and what behaviors they practiced to minimize silica dust exposure.

Reducing silica exposure

Minimizing sources of silica and other respirable dust is a priority in the mining industry. Willingness from mine sites to collaborate on research efforts and purchase new equipment has helped improve and develop new dust control methods. For example, NIOSH engineering technologies has been tested in cooperation with mine sites and has significantly reduced mineworkers’ exposure to respirable silica while performing job tasks through implementing new equipment and research.

Another important issue is whether the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) adopts the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (OSHA) proposed respirable silica dust standard, which would reduce the allowable level from 100 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter. If the allowable level changes, the mining industry will face a significant increase in the number of workers whose dust levels exceed the allowable limit.

Despite industry efforts to reduce dust exposure, data continues to show that certain occupations have consistently higher overexposure rates to silica; however, individual work practices that can help reduce respirable dust sources are increasingly important to help companies comply with regulatory standards.

Baggers’ perceived dust risks and response

Workers’ perception of risk on the job is a primary indicator of their health-protective attitudes. In general, if people see themselves at greater risk for injury or disease, they are more likely to make safe choices. NIOSH researchers interviewed baggers to gain an understanding of their job tasks and what behaviors might expose them to higher quantities of silica dust.

NIOSH talked to baggers at one plant with an automated bagging system and another plant without an automated bagging system that required five workers to rotate tasks throughout the day to complete bagging jobs. NIOSH noticed several trends among the workers interviewed.

Knowledge of dust sources and exposure

When asked about primary health and safety hazards on the job, baggers consistently said that dust exposure is their main risk. Baggers tended to be knowledgeable of the job tasks that produced the most dust. They also overwhelmingly indicated that some of these tasks were their least favorite. These job tasks included sealing bags, standing at the bagger and cleaning up a broken bag. Baggers also noted they are more aware of dust exposure if they see it in the air, particularly when sunlight shines into the facility. One bagger explained that even though they know about the dust when it’s “non-visible,” seeing it is a good reminder of its presence, prompting workers to wear respirators.

Attitudes toward health

Baggers reported initial attention to dust exposure and silicosis when they started to work at either of these plants; however, the attention seemed to fade once they became more comfortable with their job tasks.

Baggers who had between five to 15 years experience at these jobs tended to say that their risks [for overexposure] were low because they wear respirators when required. They also often explained that the plant follows MSHA’s dust regulations.

In contrast, baggers who were nearing retirement expressed more awareness and vulnerability to dust-related diseases. One bagger with 36 years experience says that he thought about silicosis “all the time, every day.”

These responses indicate that communication with baggers about their health and safety may need more attention during workers’ middle stages of their careers when complacent attitudes tend to be predominant.

Protective behaviors

Baggers discussed personal behaviors that help to reduce their exposure. Every bagger discussed wearing their respirator at some point, even if the respirator was not designated in that area. Baggers report that they had a reason to be concerned about exposure levels.

For instance, when dealing with finer grades of silica sand products, several baggers noted that they wear their respirators more often. Other behaviors mentioned by workers included closing doors when they see dust, sweeping dust, requesting that water trucks circle the area more often and adjusting curtains to improve ventilation.

But baggers also felt that there is not much else they can do to prevent being overexposed. Baggers generally say that they felt a sense of impossibility when it came to lowering their dust exposures. The fact that this ran across the board makes dust exposures a topic worth addressing within plant organizations.

Communicating with the workforce about health

Interviewing individual baggers helps inform efforts by mining companies to reduce dust sources and worker exposure levels. Baggers say they were aware that dust is continuously produced in their environment. Perhaps helping baggers identify primary sources of dust can help reinforce that the presence of dust requires awareness on the job. Efforts can be made to educate workers about less obvious sources of dust. As baggers explained, if they saw high concentrations of dust, they thought about dust-related consequences more frequently.

Take note

Education on hazardous dust exposure in the workplace could improve workers’ health with time.

Emily J. Haas and Andrew B. Cecala are with the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, www.niosh.gov.

Allison Kral

About the Author:

Allison Kral is the senior digital media manager for North Coast Media (NCM). She completed her undergraduate degree at Ohio University where she received a Bachelor of Science in magazine journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She works across a number of digital platforms, which include creating e-newsletters, writing articles and posting across social media sites. She also creates content for NCM's Portable Plants magazine, GPS World magazine and Geospatial Solutions. Her understanding of the ever-changing digital media world allows her to quickly grasp what a target audience desires and create content that is appealing and relevant for any client across any platform.

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