Is Lung Disease Making a Comeback in Construction? How You Can Protect Yourself.

Black Lung Disease feels like a reminder of a completely different time. And yet, lung disease caused by the repeated inhalation of a toxic substance is making a comeback in California and other states. The push for engineered stone countertops in residential and commercial construction is creating a problem that many people thought had largely been eradicated. The cutting of silica for countertops, as well as silica dust left on the jobsite, has led to several cases of silicosis. This is a permanent and serious health condition. Here’s what you need to know, and how you can protect yourself and your employees.

What Is Silicosis?
If you haven’t worked with silica personally, you’re probably at least familiar with the packets used in shelf-stable food items to help keep them fresh. Silica is a common mineral that makes up a lot of things you see all the time, like quartz, sand or even glass. When ground down to a powder, silica is surprisingly easy to inhale. But once you get it into your system, it’s practically impossible to get it out. It only takes a few weeks to start showing symptoms of silicosis, or you might not notice it for years. Common signs include:

  • regular cough
  • chest pain
  • fever
  • breathing difficulties

Since these are common symptoms of a variety of conditions, it’s sometimes hard to diagnose. Once you’ve got it, it’s a chronic lung disease you’ll have to manage for the rest of your life. Silicosis can make the side effects of smoking worse, and is associated with a higher risk of lung cancer. It can even be fatal, especially with high exposure.

Why Is Lung Disease Becoming a Problem in Construction?
Silicosis has been a concern in the mining industry for more than a century. People who are mining granite or quartz get a high level of exposure to it, which increases the likelihood that they will inhale it. It’s becoming a bigger problem in construction, due to the increased popularity of engineered stone countertops. Silica is the primary component of these countertops. At this point, experts are reporting at least 18 cases in four states including California. Although that may not seem like much, it’s possible that there are many more out there that haven’t been diagnosed yet. The seriousness of the condition indicates that people at risk should take steps to prevent it.

Which Fields Are At Risk?
People who manufacture glass or stone countertops are the ones most likely to deal with silica dust. However, anyone who works in adjacent fields or in areas where others are working with silica may also be at risk. This means that if you’re working in electrical in a new house where another contractor is cutting a quartz countertop, you could be inhaling the dust. You’re at risk, even if you’re coming in after they are done.

How Can Contracting Businesses Protect Themselves?
Proper procedures can make the difference between health and a higher risk of cancer or other long-term health problems. If you’re working with or near silica, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends several prevention steps, including:

  • avoiding eating or drinking near silica dust
  • use different materials for blasting
  • washing properly after working with silica
  • relying on water or wet products for cleaning instead of compressed air

In addition, employers may want to educate themselves and their employees about the common signs and symptoms of silicosis. A faster diagnosis can help avoid the problem getting worse.

Working in construction was always a little bit risky, but there are modern trends that can make it worse. Knowing about the rise in silicosis cases in California can help you identify ways that you can run your business safely and effectively. To learn more about the best practices for a variety of construction fields and prepare to take your licensing exam, contact CSLS today!

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