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599 Bondow Drive

Neenah, WI 54956

An Equal Opportunity Employer

© 2023 by Pheifer Brothers Construction Company, Inc.

Crystalline Silica Exposure

Health Hazard Information for Construction Employees


What is crystalline silica?

Crystalline silica is a basic component of soil, sand, granite, and many other minerals. Quartz is the most common form of crystalline silica. Cristobalite and tridymite are two other forms of crystalline silica. All three forms may become respirable size particles when workers chip, cut, drill, or grind objects that contain crystalline silica.


What are the hazards of crystalline silica?

Silica exposure remains a serious threat to nearly 2 million U.S. workers, including more than 100,000 workers in high risk jobs such as abrasive blasting, foundry work, stonecutting, rock drilling, quarry work and tunneling. The seriousness of the health hazards associated with silica exposure is demonstrated by the fatalities and disabling illnesses that continue to occur in sandblasters and rock drillers. Crystalline silica has been classified as a human lung carcinogen. Additionally, breathing crystalline silica dust can cause silicosis, which in severe cases can be disabling, or even fatal. The respirable silica dust enters the lungs and causes the formation of scar tissues, thus reducing the lungs' ability to take in oxygen. There is no cure for silicosis. Since silicosis affects lung function, it makes one more susceptible to lung infections like tuberculosis. In addition, smoking causes lung damage and adds to the damage caused by breathing silica dust.


What are the symptoms of silicosis?

Silicosis is classified into three types: chronic/classic, accelerated, and acute.

  • Chronic/classic silicosis, the most common, occurs after 15-20 years of moderate to low exposures to respirable crystalline silica. Symptoms associated with chronic silicosis may or may not be obvious: therefore, workers need to have a chest x-ray to determine if there is lung damage. As the disease progresses, the worker may experience shortness of breath upon exercising and have clinical signs of poor oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange. In the later stages, the worker may experience fatigue, extreme shortness of breath, chest pain, or respiratory failure.


  • Accelerated silicosis can occur after 5-10 years of high exposures to respirable crystalline silica. Symptoms include severe shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss. The onset of symptoms takes longer than in acute silicosis.


  • Acute silicosis occurs after a few months or as long as two years following exposures to extremely high concentrations of respirable crystalline silica. Symptoms of acute silicosis include severe disabling shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss, which often leads to death.



Where are construction workers exposed to crystalline silica?

Exposure occurs during many different construction activities. The most severe exposures have occurred during abrasive blasting with sand to remove paint and rust from bridges, tanks, concrete structures, and other surfaces. Other construction activities that may result in severe exposure include jack hammering, rock/well drilling, concrete missing, concrete drilling, brick and concrete block cutting and sawing, tuck pointing, tunneling operations.


How is OSHA addressing exposure to crystalline silica?

The current OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica (quartz) is 100 µg/m3 as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) [29 CFR**1910.1000]. OSHA also requires hazard communication training for workers exposed to crystalline silica and requires a respirator program until engineering controls are implemented. Additionally, OSHA has a National Emphasis Program (NEP) for Crystalline Silica exposure to identify, reduce, and eliminate health hazards associated with occupational exposures.


What can employers/employees do to protect against exposures to crystalline silica?

  1. Replace crystalline silica materials with safer substitutes, whenever possible.

  2. Provide engineering or administrative controls, where feasible, such as local exhaust ventilation, and blasting cabinets. Where necessary to reduce exposures below the PEL, use protective equipment or other protective measures.

  3. Use all available work practices to control dust exposures, such as water sprays.

  4. Wear only a N95 NIOSH-certified respirator, if respirator protection is required. Do not alter the respirator. Do not wear a tight-fitting respirator with a beard or mustache that prevents a good seal between the respirator and the face.

  5. Wear only a Type CE abrasive-blast supplied-air respirator for abrasive blasting.

  6. Wear disposable or washable work clothes and shower if facilities are available. Vacuum the dust from your clothes and change into clean clothing before leaving the work site.

  7. Participate in training, exposure monitoring, and health screening and surveillance programs to monitor any adverse health effects caused by crystalline silica exposures.

  8. Be aware of the operations and the job tasks creating crystalline silica exposures in your workplace environment and know how to protect yourself.

  9. Be aware of the health hazards related to exposures to crystalline silica. Smoking adds to the lung damage caused by silica exposures.

  10. Do not eat, drink, smoke, or apply cosmetics in areas where crystalline silica dust is present. Wash your hands and face outside of dusty areas before performing any of these activities.

  11. Remember: If it's silica, it's not just dust.

(1) When implementing the control measures specified in Table 1, each employer shall:


  1. For tasks performed using wet methods, apply water at flow rates sufficient to minimize release of visible dust. The appropriate water flow rates for controlling silica dust emissions can vary; therefore, it is necessary to follow manufacturers’ instructions when determining the required flow rate for dust suppression systems on a given worksite. Integrated water systems must be developed specifically for the type of tool in use so they will apply water at the appropriate dust emission points based on tool configuration and do not interfere with other tool components or safety devices.


Any slurry generated when using water to suppress dust should be cleaned up to limit secondary exposure to silica dust when the slurry dries following procedures described in the employer’s Written Exposure Control Plan. 


When working in cold temperatures, where there is a risk of water freezing, additional work practices such as insulating drums, wrapping drums with gutter heat tape or adding environmentally-friendly antifreeze.


  1. For tasks performed using commercially available, dust collection systems (i.e. LEV), use equipment that is designed to effectively capture dust generated by the tool being used and does not introduce new hazards such as obstructing or interfering with safety mechanisms. The “commercially available” limitation is meant only to eliminate on-site improvisations of equipment by the employer. When employers use methods other than commercially available systems for dust suppression, they must conduct exposure assessments and comply with the PEL. 


      Some Table 1 entries for dust collection systems specify use of cyclonic pre-separators and filter cleaning mechanisms to prevent buildup of debris on filters that result in less dust capture. A cyclonic pre-separator collects large debris before the air reaches the filters. A filter cleaning mechanism prevents the need for manually cleaning filters to prevent buildup of debris (caking). Some vacuums are equipped with a gauge indicating filter pressure or an equivalent device (e.g., timer to periodically pulse the filter) to help employees in determining when it is time to run a filter cleaning cycle.


  1. For tasks performed indoors or in enclosed areas, provide a means of exhaust as needed to minimize the accumulation of visible airborne dust. Indoors or in an enclosed area mean area where airborne dust can build up unless additional exhaust is used. Sufficient air circulation in enclosed or indoor environments is important to ensure the effectiveness of the control strategies and to prevent the accumulation of airborne dust. The means of exhaust necessary could include: the use of portable fans (box fans, floor fans, and axial fans), portable ventilation systems, or other systems that increase air movement and assist in the removal and dispersion of airborne dust. To be effective, the ventilation must be set up so that movements of employees during work, or the opening of doors and windows, will not negatively affect the airflow.


  1. For measures implemented that include an enclosed cab or booth, ensure that the enclosed cab or booth:

    1. Is maintained as free as practicable from settled dust;

    2. Has door seals and closing mechanisms that work properly;

    3. Has gaskets and seals that are in good condition and working properly;

    4. Is under positive pressure maintained through continuous delivery of fresh air;

    5. Has intake air that is filtered through a filter that is 95% efficient in the 0.3-10.0 μm range (e.g., MERV-16 or better); and f.   Has heating and cooling capabilities.


(2)  Where an employee performs more than one task on Table 1 during a shift, and the total duration of all tasks combined is more than four hours, the required respiratory protection for each task is the respiratory protection specified for more than four hours per shift. If the total duration of all tasks on Table 1 combined is less than four hours, the required respiratory protection for each task is the respiratory protection specified for less than four hours per shift. 


* Refer to OSHA’s Small Entity Compliance Guide for more information.


  • The water delivery system is not required to be integrated or mounted on the tool; it can be assembled and installed by the employer. Acceptable water delivery systems include direct connections to fixed water lines or portable water tank systems. These water delivery systems can be operated by one worker or could require a second worker to supply the water at the point of impact.


  • The integrated water delivery system can be a free-flowing water system designed for blade cooling as well as manufacturers’ systems designed for dust suppression alone. This option applies only when grinders are used outdoors.


†† The water spray systems can be installed so that they can be activated by remote control.


** NOTE: When the operator exits the enclosed cab and is no longer actively preforming the task, the operator is considered to have stopped the task. However, if other abrading, fracturing, or demolition work is performed by other heavy equipment and utility vehicles in the area while an operator is outside the cab, that operator is considered to be an employee “engaged in the task” and must be protected by the application of water and/or dust suppressants.