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Silicosis: Risk and Detection

Silicosis is a severe lung disease that involves the scarring and hardening of your lung tissue. You can develop silicosis from breathing in crystalline silica. It mostly strikes people working in environments with high concentrations of silica dust.

High-risk occupations include the following:

  • Mining
  • Construction work
  • Stone cutting
  • Manufacturing

Unfortunately, there is no cure for silicosis and related lung diseases caused by silica exposure. Your doctor can offer breathing treatments. They can also prescribe you an inhaler. Beyond that, silicosis is a medical condition you'll have to learn to live with.

Here, we'll discuss the people most at risk of developing pulmonary diseases. We'll also explain how your healthcare provider can detect and diagnose silicosis. Finally, we'll describe the options available if you develop silicosis at work.

A Brief History of Silicosis

The rise of silicosis coincided with the age of industrialization. Workers increasingly moved into mining, industrial, and manufacturing jobs during the 19th and early 20th centuries. These industries exposed millions of people to various occupational diseases before the advent of modern workplace safety measures.

An infamous tunneling project in Hawk's Nest, West Virginia, during the 1930s, brought national attention to silicosis. An estimated 2,500 workers dug a three-mile tunnel through a mountain with little protection from the silica dust at the worksite.

Approximately 90% of these workers developed silicosis. Over 750 workers died. Most states enacted work safety legislation after the Hawk's Nest incident. Government regulators, employers, and unions eventually became more aware of the risk silica dust posed to workers. Most employers had no choice but to comply with the new laws.

The Continuing Problem With Silica Exposure

The government has regulated the use of silica in the workplace since the 1970s. But silicosis remains a modern problem and a prevalent occupational disease. In 2019, close to 13,000 people worldwide died from the disease. Most of the victims got the disease through their jobs.

The disease features a considerable latency period (the time between exposure and noticeable symptoms). It can take 15 years from a person's first silica encounter to the detectability of silicosis symptoms.

Silicosis Exposure in the Workplace

Most people with silicosis can trace their disease to workplace exposure to crystalline silica dust. Years of exposure to this chemical can cause silicosis, lung cancer, kidney disease, and other physical ailments.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the occupations that carry an increased risk of silica exposure include:

  • Sandblasting
  • Crushing and drilling rock and concrete
  • Masonry and concrete work
  • Mining and tunneling
  • Demolition work
  • Quarrying
  • Abrasive blasting
  • Coal workers
  • Foundry workers
  • Glass manufacturers
  • Cement and asphalt manufacturing

Workers in these fields are even more at risk if they don't wear protective equipment. Employers must ensure workers have the proper training and equipment to avoid silica exposure.

Silica Exposure and Workers' Rights

OSHA's primary responsibility is to protect workers. The agency sets safety standards that all employers must follow. One of these standards involves silica exposure limits.

According to the OSHA, the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica is 50 ug.m3 per eight-hour shift. If a company doesn't abide by this limit, OSHA can fine it. It can also suspend operations until the company meets this threshold.

If you encounter silica dust at work and don't believe your employer abides by OSHA's standards, file a complaint. If you aren't sure how to do this or need help, contact a workers' compensation lawyer.

Worst case, if you have developed silicosis, occupational lung disease, or other form of lung damage, you may want to contact a personal injury attorney.

Detecting and Diagnosing Silicosis

One of the reasons silicosis is so dangerous is that it can take years to notice its symptoms. The disease often has a long latency period.

Some of the symptoms of silicosis you should watch for include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe persistent cough
  • Chest pains
  • Weight loss
  • Sputum
  • Fatigue

Seeing a doctor is the best way to know if you have the disease. They'll run diagnostic tests to determine if you have silicosis or a related illness. Some of the medical exams and tests you may undergo include the following:

  • Chest X-ray
  • Pulmonary function tests
  • Lung function tests
  • Lung biopsy
  • CT scan (computed tomography)
  • Bronchoscopy

There Are Different Types of Silicosis

The medical community recognizes three types of silicosis. The kind of silicosis you develop depends on the length and amount of your exposure to silica.

The three main types of silicosis include:

  • Simple chronic silicosis: The most common form of silicosis caused by long-term exposure (more than 20 years) to low amounts of silica particles. Prominent symptoms include swelling of the chest and lymph nodes
  • Accelerated silicosis: This type of silicosis results from medium-term exposure (five to 15 years) to higher amounts of silica dust. You'll notice symptoms earlier than you would with simple chronic silicosis
  • Acute silicosis: Caused by short-term exposure (weeks to months) to high amounts of silica dust. Acute silicosis quickly becomes symptomatic. Your lungs become inflamed and filled with fluid. This causes severe shortness of breath and a low blood oxygen level. You can die within a matter of months

Related Diseases: Tuberculosis and Lung Cancer

Silicosis can also contribute to other diseases. The medical community has long recognized an association between silicosis and tuberculosis. There may also be an association between silica exposure and lung cancer.

Smoking can further increase a person's risk of developing complications from silicosis (and many other serious lung diseases). Smoking is strongly discouraged for people with a work history that exposes them to airborne toxins such as silica dust.

Legal Help After Developing Silicosis

You have rights if you have silicosis and think it's due to occupational silica exposure. Just because it may have taken decades before you realized how much damage you've suffered doesn't mean you don't have a legal claim for damages.

We suggest you talk to an experienced toxic tort lawyer to learn how to protect your rights.

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