Silica Dust – much more than a nuisance!

With silica related deaths rising year-on-year, dust is a serious issue. How can we look to tackle the issue? James Miller, MD at dust extraction specialists Dustcontrol UK explores the problem…

Silica dust is a problem that suffers from a lack of recognition. Most us have know about the hazards of asbestos. But problems linked to silica dust suffer from a lack of wider awareness. With more than 650 silica-related deaths a year, it is the second largest cause of occupational lung cancer after asbestos.

Silica on its own isn’t a problem and is present in sand, granite, cement, stone and other building materials. But it can become a problem during the course of common construction techniques such as cutting or grinding concrete, chasing out mortar and drilling in enclosed spaces. This breaks down silica, causing it to form as respirable crystalline silica (RCS).

When inhaled, RCS can cause incurable lung cancer following a prolonged period of exposure. RCS is extremely fine and not visible in normal lighting. While you might think that the air is clear, it’s not necessarily the case.

Simple tasks such as sweeping or the pouring of powders can send RCS particles into the air, which can then make their way into the lungs. Poor workplace controls can leave employees susceptible whilst also leaving employers open to litigation.

There are a number of steps that can be taken to minimise the risks presented by working with silica dust:

Identify the problem 

List activities that could present a hazard and consider the possibility of employing an industrial hygienist to undertake an assessment.

Use substitute materials

Using alternative materials that are silica-free completely eradicates the risk of silicosis.

Utilise dust extraction

If dust is unavoidable, read HSE document CIS36 and take appropriate steps. Mobile dust extractors built to Application Class M (medium) or H (high) help to take out the dust at source, eliminating the need for sweeping and nullifying the risk of it getting airborne.

Wet it

Where possible, use water to contain any dust in the air. Wet drilling and sawing is advised. Remove dust and debris with a wet vacuum or hose it down.

 Monitor the air for dust

Air quality monitors can tell you how much dust is in the atmosphere allowing you to take appropriate steps. Workers should also be monitored and advised to take medical check-ups every 2-3 years.

Be hygienic

Crystalline silica can stay on hands and clothing so it’s as simple as washing hands before eating, drinking and smoking. Combine this with changing clothes after work and showering if possible.


Education is key to helping eradicate the problem. The effects upon health as well as the importance of effective controls and the correct procedures to follow should all be ingrained in a workforce.

Mask up

Correctly fitted protective masks should be a minimum requirement in the presence of silica dust. FFP3 masks filter at least 99% of airborne particles.

Effectively Communicate

The presence of crystalline silica needs to be clearly labelled; if it’s in a greater concentration than 0.1%, a safety data sheet must accompany any products.

Signpost it

If crystalline silica is present, make sure that the area is clearly marked and that warning signs indicate the potential hazard so that workers are aware.


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