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Avoiding silica dust exposure at work

How to work safely with concrete, stone and other silica-based products


In December 2023, Australia became the first country in the world to nationally ban engineered stone following a surge in silicosis cases. Commonly used for kitchen benches and bathroom vanities, the ban on engineered stone aims to protect thousands of workers from respirable crystalline silica (or silica dust).

So what is silica dust and what does the ban mean for the industry?

Silica dust explained

Silica is a mineral commonly found in building materials like sand, stone, concrete and mortar, and is often used to make composite materials like engineered stone, gravel, brick and tile. When it’s left within these building materials, silica is considered safe. However, when materials containing silica are disturbed through actions like cutting, drilling and abrasive blasting, a fine and extremely hazardous dust is released.

If silica dust is inhaled, it enters and remains in the lungs where it causes scarring and permanent tissue damage. Long-term silica dust exposure is proven to cause a range of serious medical conditions like emphysema, bronchitis and silicosis, lung cancer, kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

How does the ban affect WHS regulations for silica dust in Australia?

Safe Work Australia is responsible for maintaining the model work health and safety (WHS) laws. All Australian states and territories must separately implement the model WHS laws in their jurisdictions, including silica dust regulations, to determine both employee responsibilities and employer duty of care. Refer to your local regulatory body1 for the regulations that apply to you.

In light of the ban, Safe Work Australia will draft amendments to the model WHS laws prohibiting the use of engineered stone, which will then be implemented separately by the states and territories.

For workers using other products containing silica, the workplace exposure standard (WES)2 for respirable crystalline silica in all Australian workplaces remains no more than 0.05 mg/m3. This WES applies to an 8-hour working day, in a five-day working week, with compliance required under Commonwealth, state and territory WHS laws.

When does the ban come into effect?

The ban will start on July 1, 2024 in most states and territories.

Until then, workers and businesses can continue to work with engineered stone in a controlled way. This includes wearing respiratory protective equipment (RPE) if you’re cutting, grinding, trimming, sanding, abrasive polishing or drilling engineered stone, plus using one of the following:

  • a water suppression (wet cutting) system;

  • an on-tool dust extraction system; or

  • a local exhaust ventilation system.

Supporting customers in compliance

According to Darell Kamphuis, Coates’ National General Hire Product Manager, the company was first to the rental market with a silica dust mitigation range to support customers in complying with the WES of 0.05 mg/m3, long before the standard was introduced in July 2020.

“Attending a tradeshow in the US in 2018 introduced us to some of the products and solutions that were available globally, and gave us a head start on working with our suppliers to develop a range of products suited to managing this hazard here in Australia,” says Darell.

“Our knowledge and experience in this area also led to Coates providing an interface between the regulatory bodies in some states and territories and other industry bodies and customers to provide education and advise on suitable products and approaches to address this issue.”

“Similarly, with the ban on engineered stone, we’re here to help customers navigate their responsibilities and keep their workers safe,” he adds.

Working safely with silica

Although silica is an inherent part of working with building materials like concrete, stone and tile, there are ways to work safely with these materials. Coates’ comprehensive range of silica dust mitigation equipment is designed to support companies of all sizes.

Silica dust extraction

When dry cutting materials like stone and concrete, Coates’ range of saws and grinders can come fitted with dust extractors, or can be complemented by quality vacuum accessories to extract silica dust as it’s produced. Dust extraction kits are available for the safe drilling, chiselling and demolition of most masonry surfaces.

Silica slurry extraction

Wet cutting, drilling and grinding are the preferred methods for working with silica-based products to prevent the production of silica dust, however, these approaches still generate silica slurry that poses the risk of exposure as it dries. To avoid this hazard, specialised slurry vacuums can be used to extract slurry from cutting surfaces. Water supply units are also available to provide up to 30 minutes of constant flowing water for wet cutting applications.

Air filtration

As a secondary measure for indoor use, Coates offers mobile air cleaner units to filter out any dust particles that manage to bypass wet or dry extraction.

For advice on managing silica dust within your workplace and for all your equipment hire and training needs, reach out to Coates today.

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