Let’s face it, construction sites can be pretty dirty places. When working on an existing home, there is bound to be some demolition, which means lots of dust. If you’re doing a new build, building materials are being cut, drilled, hammered, and pounded into dust all the time. Whatever the source, dust is an underestimated danger to workers at a construction site. However, as we will see, it is becoming increasingly clear that contractors need to protect workers from RCS dust more than other types of dust.
Moving Beyond Asbestos
We all know that asbestos is bad news. In the post-war era, it was used all over the place with very little oversight. Builders used asbestos for textured walls and ceiling, insulation, gaskets, and even toilet seats.
At the time, little was understood about the potential dangers of asbestos. Since then, however, we have become all too familiar with the potential hazards of that simple, ubiquitous building material. We now know that inhaling asbestos dust can lead to serious illness. Building regulations reflect that fact. Today, if you come across any asbestos in a demolition, you need to stop what you’re doing and call in the experts. They come armed with special respirators and protective gear. Asbestos removal specialists are highly trained to work with this toxic material in the safest way possible. The work is slow, careful, and often costly.
However, with all this focus on asbestos dust, we sometimes overlook other dangers on the job site. The simple truth is that inhaling any type of dust is bad for your lungs and your health. With that being said, there is bad dust and really bad dust.
What is RCS?
The dust that you have to worry about on a job site is called respirable dust. This is dust that is fine enough to inhale. Respirable dust many come from almost any source. If you work in a bakery, you may be exposed to respirable flour dust. If you work in a woodshop, you may be surrounded by clouds of wood dust. The wood dust may even be mixed with glues, stains, shellacs, and finishes. Any type of respirable dust can enter the lungs and cause damage. The most common damage from respirable dust is occupational asthma. Occupational asthma can be exacerbated or even caused by respirable dust of any kind.
However, of all the types of dust you might encounter on a construction site, the worst is respirable crystalline silica (RCS) dust. The most common source of RCS is stone. However, stone is far from the only material that may create RCS dust. Other materials that create RCS dust include concrete, mortar, slate, brick, limestone, marble, and many other common construction materials.
How Workers Are Exposed to RCS Dust
Many of the materials that can create RCS dust are incredibly common on construction worksites. Fortunately, when left alone these materials are completely safe. However, the danger on a construction site comes from the many ways in which these materials can be disturbed, shaped, or demolished. A few examples of activities that can produce RCS dust include:
- Shaping RCS-containing materials by hammering, grinding, chipping, cutting, sawing and drilling
- Breaking down RCS-containing materials with abrasion from sandblasters, hydro-blasting, and other means of stripping a thin layer of material
- Disturbing RCS-containing materials by crushing, hauling, and dumping
- Any sort of demolition of RCS-containing materials
- Forcing dust from RCS-containing materials into the air, for example by sweeping or blowing
Any of these activities can expose your workers to harmful RCS dust. Unfortunately, many contractors are simply unaware of the potential hazard from RCS dust and do little to protect their workers.
The Danger of RCS Dust
The risk of RCS dust increases as the dust becomes finer. The very finest dust can lodge deep into the tissue of the lungs. The RCS dust is made of tiny particles of jagged-edged stone. When these tiny stone particles get deep into the lungs, they can create a substantial amount of scar tissue. The scar tissue alone can cause breathing problems. But the most dangerous aspect of RCS dust is that the scar tissue has an elevated risk of becoming cancerous.
The most common illness from inhalation of RCS dust is called Silicosis. Silicosis is the widespread occurrence of scar tissue in the lungs. It can cause breathing problems as well as increase the risk of developing other unlikely diseases. Silicosis can increase the risk of respiratory illnesses like tuberculosis, but it can also increase the risk of kidney diseases and even arthritis. Because it is so unknown, many construction workers may suffer these diseases and never know that they are rooted in severe Silicosis.
Unfortunately, with the current state of medical technology, there is no known way to reverse the damage from Silicosis. While a diagnosis of Silicosis usually follows long-term exposure to RCS dust, the results can be more immediate in some cases. Acute Silicosis is the sudden appearance of the disease after short-term exposure to exceptionally high levels of RCS dust. Like other forms of Silicosis, the damage is severe and permanent, with a lifelong possibility for complications.
RCS Dust Safety
The construction industry is only recently coming to terms with the real risks of RCS dust. OSHA recently changed their permissible exposure limit (PEL) for RCS to 50µg/m3. For decades the acceptable level was twice that, 100µg/m3. In many countries, the PEL is still 100µg/m3, despite growing knowledge of the dangers.
Sometimes the 100µg/m3 recommendation is based less on science and worker safety than on practical considerations. For instance, in the United Kingdom the agency that is equivalent to OSHA is the Health Safety Executive (HSE). In their recommendation of 100µg/m3, they note that it is a more realistic goal than the more science-based recommendation of 50µg/m3. They also conclude that many construction companies and other businesses that work with RCS don’t even come close to the 100µg/m3 mark.
However, there are many ways in which a conscientious contractor can significantly reduce the risk of exposure to RCS dust. And the reasons for doing so go far beyond just meeting OSHA guidelines. When a contractor demonstrates concern for the safety of his or her workers, that contractor is building a reputation among subcontractors and workers. A contractor who is concerned with the safety of his or her workers will be able to attract the best workers and the most talented craftspeople.
How to Control RCS Dust
The fight against RCS dust is far from over. Even when you’re working with materials prone to RCS, you can take concrete steps to protect your workers. In general, the types of dust control come down to three methods:
- Eliminate opportunities for dust creation and exposure
- Extract dust from the environment as you work
- Preventing the spread of dust by dampening with water and other custom materials
The first method, eliminating opportunities for exposure, starts with well thought out design. A project can be designed with preconstructed sections that require minimal drilling, chipping, grinding, etc. There are also online training opportunities available to workers to help them learn how to avoid exposure.
The second method, extracting dust, can be done with some specific tools. In a static environment, you can use dust extraction vacuum pipes attached to freestanding units. It is also possible to use other systemic extraction solutions. For the more common situation of workers who are moving around a worksite, small vacuum-style extraction systems can be attached to many tools. These attachments capture RCS dust as it is created and usher it away from workers and out of their breathing space.
The third method, dampening dust to control its spread, is about as simple as it sounds. Simply spraying water over a potential dusty area can keep dust from spreading into the air. There are also custom foams made for this purpose. Custom attachments are available for vehicles moving or dumping RCS-containing materials. These attachments control the spread of RCS dust by preventing it from blowing away on the wind and movement as it is being handled.
Needo Can Help
When it comes to managing your workforce, technology can be your best friend. Keeping your workers safe should be a top priority. With Needo’s construction management software you can know exactly who is working when and what materials they will be using. This information can help keep a job site clean, efficient, and safe. Contact Needo today for details!