Silica dust and the risks

Silica dust and the risks Midlands health and Safety Consultancy

Silica dust kills around 800 people every year in the UK. While asbestos and its associated health risks are fairly well known, most of us are a lot less aware of the silica dust health hazards. Yet, silica containing materials are extremely common, particularly in the construction industry and similar to asbestos, the diseases caused by silica dust exposure can take decades to reveal themselves. Our latest article looks at silica and the risks involved and how to minimise them in the workplace.

What is silica?

Silica is a natural substance found in stone, rocks, sand and clay in its crystalline form. It is also found in bricks, tiles, concrete and some plastics. When these materials are worked on, for example when being cut or drilled into, crystalline silica is released as a very fine dust that can be breathed in. This dust causes significant ill-health effects, including silicosis and cancers.

The amount of dust you are exposed to depends on a numbers of factors including:

  • The type of stone you are working (including both natural and artificial/engineered stone)
  • The type of tool you are using and whether it is a powered or hand held tool
  • How long you are working with the tool;
  • How well you are using any extraction system (local exhaust ventilation)
  • The effectiveness of your mask (respiratory protective equipment)
  • How your working area is organised (including segregation of dusty activities and housekeeping arrangements).


How can silica affect you?

Silicosis is a slowly progressive, irreversible disease that usually takes some years to develop, and it can cause breathing problems, the severity of which can range from mild through to severely disabling, depending on the amount of dust inhaled. In severe cases, silicosis leads to premature death.

In people who have had exceptionally high exposures over just a few months or years, a rapidly progressive and often fatal condition known as “acute silicosis” can occur and it is now widely accepted that RCS can cause lung cancer.

Other known effects of RCS exposure include Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), asthma and possible associations with scleroderma (an autoimmune disorder) and increased risk of kidney disease.

How can you reduce risk?

  • Provide support with the organisational silica risk assessment
  • Support with identifying and implementing suitable controls by following the ‘hierarchy of control’ – for example, introducing reduction, engineering, administrative controls, or advising upon suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) or respiratory protective equipment (RPE) if adequate control cannot be achieved by other means
  • Support with the implementation or maintenance of the silica exposure plan
  • Routinely inspect known RCS tasks and areas
  • Consult with workers (on a regular basis)
  • Check that workers are following and understand procedures and safe systems of work
  • Source and provide suitable silica information and training
  • Investigate incidents and exposures
  • Support with health monitoring/surveillance requirements
  • Support with evaluations and instate any learning lessons to prevent future RCS incidents or exposures


There is a clear requirement under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) for employers to assess and control the risks from stone dust exposure. For further information on silica dust and the risks, please contact us here.

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