Is exposure to airborne concrete, stone, brick, or granite dust hazardous to my health?

by Jim Orr

Federal and state authorities have passed laws requiring workers who cut or grind materials such as concrete, brick, stone, or granite to wear respirators or other devices designed to protect them from breathing in these materials. And with good reason. The cloud of dust created when workers use tools on these materials contains crystalline silica, which can be fatal if it is inhaled.

The majority of crystalline silica contains quartz. Common sand, for example, is almost 100% quartz. However, other common building materials also contain high volumes of silica. For example, granite, which is frequently used in kitchen countertops, may contain up to 70% silica.

When materials such as concrete, stone, brick, or granite are cut or ground by workers, it can create extremely fine dust particles, which can make their way deep into the lungs if inhaled. These silica dust particles can cause scarring in the lungs, leading to a serious and irreversible lung condition known as silicosis.

Construction Workers at Risk of Silicosis

Construction workers and other laborers who work with materials used in homebuilding and other construction jobs may be at risk from inhaling materials that are found at many jobsites, including:

  • Asphalt, concrete, granite, sand, slate
  • Block, brick, ceramic tile, roof tiles
  • Grout, joint compound, mortar
  • Pavers, siding, terrazzo

Many types of operations can create airborne silica dust from these materials, which can be hazardous if inhaled. Common construction operations that can increase the risk of silica exposure include:

  • Drilling, needle gunning, cutting, sawing
  • Chipping, crushing, grinding, hammering
  • Milling, polishing, tuckpointing
  • Clean-up activities such as dry sweeping and pressurized air blowing

Type of Silicosis and Common Symptoms

There are three types of silicosis that can affect construction workers and other individuals who may be exposed to airborne silica particles:

  • Acute silicosis occurs after weeks or months of exposure to high levels of silica dust. Death from acute silicosis can occur within as little as a few months.
  • Accelerated silicosis is caused by exposure to high levels of silica. The first symptoms of accelerated silicosis can begin 5-10 years after exposure has occurred.
  • Chronic silicosis is caused by exposure to low levels of silica. Symptoms may appear 10 years or more after exposure has occurred. This is the most common type of silicosis.

The symptoms of silicosis can vary depending on whether a patient is diagnosed with the acute, accelerated, or chronic variety of the disease. Early symptoms that can be a sign of silicosis may include shortness of breath, cough, wheezing, and tightness of the chest.

Exposure to airborne silica has also been linked to diseases such as tuberculosis, kidney disease, and lung cancer. Symptoms of these diseases may include fever, weight loss, or night sweats. Over time, these symptoms may become worse as the disease progresses, leading to death.

Preventing exposure to airborne silica dust particles

The most important way to prevent exposure to airborne silica dust is to keep this dust out of the air. Simple measure such as wetting down materials containing silica before they are used can have a tremendous impact on the amount of silica dust that becomes airborne.

  • Planning ahead to eliminate or control dust in cases where silica dust may become airborne
  • Training workers about proper practices and protective equipment for working with silica
  • Local exhaust ventilation with dust collectors and other engineering controls
  • Good work practices, such as marking off areas where silica dust may be present
  • Use of disposable or washable protective clothing at the worksite
  • Showering and changing into clean clothes before leaving the jobsite
  • Air monitoring to measure the amount of silica dust to which workers are exposed
  • Maintenance of respirators and other dust control systems to keep them functioning properly
  • Preventing dust from becoming airborne during cleanup. This can include the use of water hoses or wet-wiping instead of air blowers, vacuums equipped with HEPA filters, and wet sweeping.

Respiratory Protection for Workers at Risk of Airborne Silica Exposure

In cases where workplace exposure to airborne silica dust cannot be kept below NIOSH-recommended exposure levels (0.05 mg/m³ as a 10-hour weighted average), workers should be provided with respiratory protection in order to limit the amount of dust they inhale. Employers are also expected to conduct air monitoring tests to determine how much airborne silica is present in the work environment so that the appropriate respiratory equipment can be provided for workers.

Two federal agencies, NIOSH and OSHA, have established respiratory safety standards for workers depending on the level of airborne silica dust to which they will be exposed:

  • Up to 0.5 mg/m³: Half-mask air-purifying respirator with minimum N-95 filters.
  • Up to 1.25 mg.m³: Powered air-purifying respirator with minimum N-95 filters, or supplied-air respirator with hood or helmet operated in continuous-flow mode.
  • Up to 2.5 mg/m³: Full-facepiece air-purifying respirator with minimum N-100 filters, or powered air-purifying respirator with tight-fitting facepiece and high-efficiency filters.
  • Up to 25 mg/m³: Positive pressure supplied-air respirator.
  • Sandblasting (without cabinet or dust collector): Type CE abrasive-blasting respirator.

However, respirators are not intended to be a complete substitute for maintaining a safe working environment. Even in cases where respirators are used to limit exposure to airborne silica, employers are expected to conduct environmental monitoring to measure airborne silica levels, train workers regarding safe work practices, conduct medical evaluations of workers, and maintain respiratory equipment to ensure that it is working properly.

Controlling Dust

In addition to the use of respirators, employers can also help to limit their workers’ exposure to airborne silica by controlling the amount of dust in the workplace environment. Dust collection systems are available for many types of dust-generating tools and can help to limit the amount  of airborne dust created by this equipment. Local exhaust ventilation can also help limit the amount of dust that is released into the air. Many tools can also be equipped with devices that provide water to the blade or grinder when workers use them to saw concrete, masonry, or other materials that can generate silica dust.

Because many working environments can remain at high levels of airborne silica dust even after cutting, grinding, or sweeping has stopped, employers should have their workers use caution even after work has stopped. Properly training workers about safe practices for working with silica-generating materials is an important component of ensuring that workers do not inhale unsafe levels of silica particles.

Workers Diagnosed With Silicosis Have Legal Rights

Despite federal safety regulations, exposure to airborne silica continues to jeopardize the health of thousands of workers across the country. Since 1968, more than 14,000 workers in the U.S. have died from silicosis, many from inhaling airborne dust particles created by cutting or grinding construction materials. In addition to the hundreds of workers who die each year from silicosis, hundreds more are injured or disabled as a result of the disease, making it difficult for them to take care of themselves or their families.

Federal law requires employers to maintain a safe working environment and to provide workers with the training and equipment necessary to limit their risk of silica exposure. When employers neglect their duty to keep workers safe from the dangers of airborne silica, workers who have been diagnosed with silicosis or other diseases caused by silica exposure may be eligible to file a lawsuit in a court of law.

The law firm of Heygood, Orr & Pearson was founded on the principle that everyone—including workers who are hurt on the job and victims of dangerous drugs or other defective products— should have access to experienced legal counsel. Our firm has the experience and financial resources to handle personal injury cases involving workplace exposure to silica or other injuries from start to finish. In many instances, our firm has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a case in order to take it to trial. At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we are committed to achieving justice for our clients, whatever the cost.

If you or a loved one think you have been exposed to airborne silica in the workplace and have developed symptoms of silicosis, including cough or shortness of breath, you may be eligible to file a lawsuit and receive compensation for your injuries. For a free legal consultation about your case and to find out if you may qualify to file a lawsuit, contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001. You can also contact our staff by following this link to our free case evaluation form and answering a few simple questions about your case to get started.

by Jim Orr

Jim Orr is a licensed attorney and a partner at HO&P focusing on business and personal injury litigation. Jim was selected multiple times to the Super Lawyers List and has tried 70+ cases to verdict.