Silica dust exposure is not a health and safety issue unique to Australia.
The deadly consequences of prolonged exposure to silica became more widely known in the late eighties and the material is still causing thousands of preventable deaths each year worldwide.
According to Silicosis and Lung Cancer: Current Perspectives (2018), approximately 23 million workers have been exposed to silica in China alone. In India, 11.5 million have been exposed to silica dust, while the number in the United States and Europe is approximately two million, respectively.
Here in Australia, roughly half a million exposure cases have been reported.
Silica dust has also recently made headlines in New Zealand, with stories emerging of a community vowing to fight a proposed quarry three kilometres from the Waikato township.
Residents fear the project could see silica dust contaminate the Karapiro stream and Waikato river.
“Silica sand is capable of floating in 20km winds for 3.7km that’s going to affect all the people of Cambridge”, a local resident is quoted as saying.
The proposal is for a 25-year project and seeks consent to extract 400,000 tonnes of sand a year from the proposed site on the very edge of town.
Sources of crystalline silica in mines and quarries
At mine and quarry sites, a number of operational processes produce dust, such as extraction, crushing, screening and stockpiling. When weather conditions are dry, hot and windy, the risk of dust generation and transport increases.
The minerals extracted from mines and quarries vary greatly from site to site regarding the amount of silica materials present in the rock. The higher the proportion of silica in the rock, the higher the proportion of fine crystalline silica that can be expected in the total airborne particles.
Although mines and quarries may have low proportions of silica in the rock, elevated exposures to any dust particles have the potential to cause adverse health effects, and South Australia’s dry climate heightens the potential for dust generation. Therefore, general dust exposure is the main mining hazard and is why dust management is mandated across the state.
Sources of crystalline silica on construction sites
Crystalline silica is also a common mineral found in a range of construction materials.
Crystalline silica (quartz) is a common mineral found in:
- most rocks, sands, and clays
- products such as concrete, mortar, brick, blocks, pavers, tiles, natural and composite stone benchtops
- cement-based materials such as fibre-cement sheeting and autoclaved-aerated concrete.
Dust containing respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is generated by high-energy processes such as cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, polishing, scabbling, and crushing silica-containing materials.
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