Crystalline silica (quartz) is a naturally occurring mineral found in most rocks, stone, sand and clay as well as in products such as bricks, concrete, tile and manufactured stone.
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Crystalline silica - a priority chemical
The NSW Work Health and Safety Roadmap has a target of a 50 per cent reduction in serious injuries and illnesses by 2022, including reducing exposures to priority hazardous chemicals and materials by 30%. Through the implementation of the Hazardous chemicals and materials exposures baseline reduction strategy (PDF, 3004.06 KB), the level and impact of workplace exposures to hazardous chemicals will be identified and reduced.
A priority list of 100 chemicals based on national and international research was developed, in which crystalline silica ranked the second highest priority.
Uses for crystalline silica
Crystalline silica is a very common mineral found in natural and manufactured stone as well as building products such as concrete, tiles and bricks.
Engineered materials containing silica, such as manufactured stone, are used in kitchen benches and counter tops.
Workers will also come across silica when excavating or tunnelling through sandstone.
Typical crystalline silica levels in different materials;
- Sand, sandstone - 70-100%
- Manufactured stone - 93% or higher
- Granite - 20-45%, typically 30%
- Concrete, mortar - 25-70%
- Calcium-silicate bricks - 50-55%
- Slate - 20-40%
- Brick - Up to 30%
- Fibre cement sheets - 10-30%
- Demolition dust - 3-4%
- Marble - 2%
- Limestone - 2%
Harms from crystalline silica
Very fine particles of crystalline silica dust, which are 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, (known as respirable crystalline silica) is harmful when inhaled into the lungs. Airborne dust is most likely to occur when materials or products containing silica are cut, sanded, drilled or handled in any other way that creates fine dust.
Exposure to silica dust can lead to a number of serious illnesses such as:
- silicosis – a scarring of the lung which can result in a severe shortness of breath and is not reversible. Severe cases can be terminal or require a lung transplant
- lung cancer
- kidney disease
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Adequate controls such as limiting the generation of airborne dust and use of personal protective equipment can prevent hazardous exposures and illness in the workplace.
The workplace exposure standard (WES) for respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is 0.1 mg/m3 8 hour Time-Weighted Average. Guidance on interpreting exposure standards is available in the Guidance on the Interpretation of Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants (Safe Work Australia).
Protecting yourself and others
- eliminate where possible, tasks that generate dust
- substitute where possible with safer products
- use exhaust ventilation systems to capture and remove dust at the source
- use dust capture systems on portable tools
- apply water suppression systems to reduce dust generation
- use well maintained and appropriate personal protective equipment (eg – face masks)
- use water or an approved vacuum cleaner (class M or H) to clean up dust and avoid using compressed air or sweeping
- follow instructions and controls outlined in safety data sheets and product labels
- conduct regular air monitoring to confirm everyone at your workplace is working within safe levels of exposure.
Workers who may be at significant risk of exposure to crystalline silica must be offered regular health monitoring (chest x-rays and lung capacity tests) by their employer. Insurance & Care NSW (icare) offers subsidised health monitoring to businesses across NSW through its Lung Screen service.
Complete our health monitoring webinar to understand when health monitoring is required and your regulatory requirements. Eligible businesses who complete the webinar can apply for a $500 small business rebate.
Other guides and resources
Safe Work Australia
- Crystalline silica - Hazardous Chemicals Requiring Health Monitoring
- Health Monitoring for Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals - Guide for workers
- Health Monitoring for Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals - Guide for persons conducting a business or undertaking
Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH) guidance
- Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH) Position Paper on Respirable Crystalline Silica
- Find an occupational hygienist
HSE (UK) guidance
- Case study: Terry the former stoneworker suffering with silicosis (HSE) (Video)
- Introducing & Managing RPE in the workplace (HSE) (Video)
- Local Exhaust Ventilation (LEV) workplace fume and dust extraction (HSE) (Video)
Breathe Freely (UK) initiative
United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidance
- Crystalline silica overview
- Controlling silica dust in construction fact sheets
- Controlling silica dust in other industries fact sheets
US Department of Labor
- ‘stop silicosis’ video