What is Silicosis and How is it Contracted?

OSHA PEL exposure silica dust

Few people really enjoy it when the government expands regulations. While there’s certainly been a lot of focus on silica dust regulation updates, we haven’t spent much time looking at the rationale behind it. Namely, the silicosis OSHA is trying to prevent construction Pros from suffering later in life. We go over just what is silicosis and also how it’s contracted.

What is Silicosis and What are the Symptoms?

Silicosis is lung fibrosis that takes hold when you breathe in silica dust. Concrete and masonry work, mining, and other sectors kick up this type of dust on a regular basis. As you breathe in silica dust, it damages the lining of your lungs’ air sacs. This creates eventual scar tissue inside your lungs and can cause fluid buildup, affecting your ability to breathe as your lungs stiffen.

What is Silicosis and How is it Contracted?
Image courtesy of CDC.gov.

How is Silicosis Contracted?

To avoid it, you might want to know how silicosis is contracted. Breathing in silica dust doesn’t automatically give you silicoses. Susceptibility and repeated contact do. Acute silicosis symptoms can begin as early as a few weeks after exposure and include a cough, weight loss, and fatigue. In some people, it may take years before the symptoms occur.

Chronic silicosis typically shows up after 10 to 30 years of persistent exposure. This gets into your upper lungs and can result in extensive scarring.

If you remain in a high-exposure environment, you’ll experience accelerated silicosis. This could lead you to experience the long-term effects even sooner—usually within 10 years.

Disturbingly, no cure for silicosis exists, and it also increases your risk of lung cancer, tuberculosis, and COPD. Only preventative measures will keep your lungs healthy.

Reducing Risk on Site

Updated regulations from OSHA lower the permissible exposure level (PEL) from 250 micrograms per cubic meter to 50 micrograms. They created Table 1 to offer an easy-to-read guide for selecting the right tools, accessories, and dust collection systems to keep you in compliance.

Bosch 18V SDS-Plus Brushless Rotary Hammer GBH18V-26

If you don’t see your application on the list, you can still use objective data to prove a system of tools and methods will keep you under the limit.

Finally, you can fit your crew with monitors to gather actual exposure data and ensure they stay below the limit.

Many tool manufacturers, like Bosch and Makita, make the process of selecting Table 1 compliant systems easier. These companies provide objective data documentation straight from their website. You can easily bring up the information in your job planning meeting, morning safety meeting, or access it on your smartphone.

Silicosis Statistics

  • Around 2 million U.S. workers are exposed to silica in the workplace in the construction industry aling with 300,000 workers in other industries.
  • Silica dust, when it enters the lungs, causes inflammation. After prolonges exposure this can develop scar tissue which makes breathing difficult.
  • While no cure for silicosis exists, various treatments help alleviate symptoms.
  • OSHA, workers, and employees can work together to follow guidelines and prevent silicosis.
  • Silicosis can lead to additional problems like tuberculosis, lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, autoimmune disorders, and kidney disease.
OSHA PEL exposure silica dust

Additional Steps to Prevent Silicosis

If you work in a trade that has a risk of silica dust exposure, get proactive with your medical care. Your insurance likely carries a free or low-cost annual wellness exam. Let your doctor know you want to stay ahead of silicosis so he or she pays close attention to your lungs.

If think silicosis has already done some damage, they may want a lung CT scan, bronchoscopy, or biopsy. Some of this can help establish a baseline to continue monitoring your health. Either way, the upfront cost will be worth it if you’re able to prevent damage at a later date.

How Do You Treat Silicosis?

If your doctor establishes that you have silicosis, it’s not the end of the world. The medical community has some experience in how to treat silicosis. You will, however, have some lifestyle changes. Obviously, you need to eliminate any additional exposure. You may also get an inhaler to help decrease sputum or to relax your air tubes.

If your silicosis is more advanced, you may need oxygen on a regular basis. The most extreme cases may even see you put on the list for a lung transplant.

Once the disease sets in, you’ll have to avoid airborne irritants like smoke, pollen, and air pollution. Managing the disease takes a lot of care, and there’s no getting around the fact that it will be expensive.

Final Thoughts

We don’t want to scare anyone. The bottom line—silicosis is real and needs to be a concern. Do your best to focus on prevention and you can alleviate or bypass most of these concerns.

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