More than one million American workers are currently at risk for developing silicosis, a debilitating, irreversible and sometimes fatal disease. If this were not tragic enough, the cause of silicosis has been known for centuries, yet Americans continue to die every year of this completely preventable disease.
Silicosis is caused by breathing in particles of crystalline silicone – the primary component of sand. Since 1974, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recommended that silica sand be banned from use in abrasive blasting. It has been outlawed in the United Kingdom since 1949.
The workers primarily at risk are those using silica sand for abrasive blasting. This process is frequently used to clean irregularities from foundry castings, to remove paint from metal surfaces, to finish tombstones, to etch or frost glass, and for other artistic purposes.
The silica sand used in blasting typically fractures into fine particles and becomes airborne. The worker then inhales the silica which becomes imbedded in the worker’s lungs. Most sandblasters continue to work without adequate respiratory protection and nearby workers frequently have no protection at all.
If an employer has failed to substitute a less hazardous blasting material for silica, the following precautions should be taken to try to protect the worker:
- Blasting should be done in automatic blast cleaning machines which permit workers to operate the machinery from outside, using gloved armholes
- Workers should wear disposable protective clothes and should shower before leaving the worksite
- Proper respiratory protection should be used
- Medical examinations, including x-rays, should be provided to all workers exposed
- Warning signs should be posted to mark areas contaminated with crystalline silica