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In 1705, doctors described lungs containing “heaps of sand” in people who died of silicosis, caused by overexposure to crystalline silica. As early as the 1920s, doctors and scientists believed that working with asbestos was hazardous and could lead to severe lung disease. Asbestosis, a lung disease directly caused by inhaling asbestos fibers, and silicosis are different diseases, caused by handling different substances. What they have in common is the ability to destroy the health of people who work in industries that use these potentially toxic materials. In both cases, the dangers were recognized and reported a long time before guidelines and regulations were implemented. Some experts call crystalline silica the “modern-era asbestos.”

The first law suit exposing the clear and present dangers of working with asbestos was filed in 1929. It took 50 years - of widespread manufacturer and insurance company cover-ups - before industry regulations were put into effect in the 1970s. Asbestos is now banned in more than 60 countries, including England, Canada and throughout Europe. It is not banned in the U.S. In 2018, our chemical industry imported four times more asbestos than in 2017. More than one million American workers are exposed every day. It’s estimated that 90,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases worldwide.

Asbestos is a natural silicate material comprised of fibers. It is resistant to water, heat, electricity and chemicals. Asbestos minerals are not broken down by water, chemicals or bacteria. People who work in the construction, ship yard, automotive, mining, firefighting, insulation, plumbing, and power plant industries are among the highest at risk. Prolonged exposure can cause the fibers to get stuck in the lung’s alveoli (air sacs), causing the lungs to scar and harden. Asbestosis is not cancer, though cancer can develop over time. There is no cure. Mesothelioma is a deadly cancer caused by asbestos fibers lodged in the lining of the lungs. The prognosis is grim, typically a year or less to live.

Breathing Easier

Crystalline silica is a common mineral naturally occurring in the earth's crust. It is found in stone, sand, concrete, and mortar; the most common form is quartz. It is used to make glass, ceramics, bricks, and much more. When materials containing crystalline silica are sanded, ground, cut, or drilled, tiny bits of silica dust are released and can be breathed in. They are called “respirable” particles. Respirable crystalline silica has been linked to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and kidney disease. It has been designated a “known human carcinogen.”

Workers who cut concrete represent one of the largest groups exposed to crystalline silica. Equipment with built-in controls like water or local exhaust ventilation to suppress dust, and safe work practices can significantly reduce or eliminate silica exposure.

In the 1930s, the Gauley Bridge tunnel project became one of the worst disasters in construction history, when hundreds of workers died of silicosis and within two more years, another 1,500 workers had developed it. In 1938, the Secretary of Labor held a national silicosis conference - “Stop Silicosis” - to raise awareness. It wasn’t until 1971 that federal regulations governing silica exposure were put into place, with OSHA (created in 1970) setting “permissible exposure limits” (pels) for construction/shipyards and general industry. In 1996, another Secretary of Labor began yet another anti-silicosis campaign to further protect construction workers from overexposure to crystalline silica. OSHA drafted another, more protective, silica standard; it took 19 years to pass through the rule-making process.  

OSHA’s new regulations limit workers’ exposure to crystalline silica. The standards went into effect on October 23, 2017 for the construction industry, and June 23, 2018 for general industry and marine. The standards set requirements for air sampling and established pels. Employers are required to implement controls and safety measures, and provide respirators. Employees must be trained and informed of the hazards of working with crystalline silica. OSHA estimates that 2.3 million workers annually are exposed to crystalline silica at work, and that 1,000 to 1,500 people die each year from crystalline silica exposure.

Asbestos and crystalline silica share a history of being potentially dangerous to the people that handle these materials. Now crystalline silica has joined asbestos in being held to OSHA regulations and new industry standards. Employers are committed to keeping their workers safe, because no one should have to choose between doing their job and staying healthy.  

Ace Cutting Equipment & Supply, Inc. has the state-of-the-art concrete and masonry cutting tools to keep your crews safe on the job. Call us at 888-283-2597, or visit our website: