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Silicosis and Silica

Silica, or silicon dioxide, is a chemical compound in sand, rock, and soil. Many construction and building materials contain silica. This is why people who work in the construction industry are at a heightened risk of exposure to silica dust.

Construction workers may come into contact with silica when chipping, hammering, drilling, crushing, or hauling rock. They also risk silica exposure when working with concrete and masonry products. Even materials containing small amounts of respirable crystalline silica may produce high dust concentrations.

Here, we'll explain the sources of silica. We'll also discuss the adverse health effects silica exposure causes. Finally, we'll describe what you can do if you or a loved one become sick after working with or near silica dust.

Workers at Risk of Silica Exposure

Certain workers are at a higher risk of silica exposure. This also applies to people in the rock and natural stone industries.

Some of the occupations that put workers at an increased risk of occupational exposure include:

  • Foundry workers
  • Abrasive blasting
  • Ceramic work
  • Miners
  • Dry sweeping of silica dust
  • Quarrying
  • Tunneling

If you work in these industries, you're at a greater risk of developing varying types of silicosis. It depends on the types of rock you work with. It also depends on the years of exposure. Ideally, your employer would be as concerned with workers' health as with profit. But this isn't always the case.

Silica and Silica Dust Are Dangerous

When you inhale silica or silica dust, particles enter tiny air sacs in your lungs. Millions of workers in the U.S. encounter this breathable (or "respirable") crystalline silica dust. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 100 American workers die annually from silicosis.

Silicosis is a chronic lung disease you may develop from constant exposure to silica. It's a pneumoconiosis condition. This is a general term for any lung disease you suffer from inhaling dust particles.

Today, exposure to silica dust on the job is as dangerous to human health as other known carcinogens, such as asbestos and smoking. People encountering large amounts of silica dust are also at a greater risk of developing lung cancer, tuberculosis, and bronchitis.

What Is Silicosis?

Silicosis is a scarring and hardening of lung tissue from inhaling crystalline silica particles. The disease can cause permanent shortness of breath and can make victims more susceptible to further respiratory complications like bronchitis and lung cancer.

In some cases, silicosis can be fatal. Unfortunately, there is no medical treatment for silicosis. You can try to prevent it, but doctors cannot cure the condition. You are at the mercy of your employer. Your employer is in the best position to prevent worker exposure.

Regardless of the source of exposure, there are three types of silicosis:

  • Acute silicosis — Results from exposure to a large amount of silica in a short amount of time
  • Chronic silicosis — Most common in people who work in mining, stonecutting, and similar occupations. It happens most often after exposure to a relatively constant level of silica over a long time (7-10 years)
  • Accelerated silicosis — Due to exposure to lower concentrations of silica over a long period (15-20 years)

Initial exposure to silica and silica dust irritates the eyes, nose, and throat. Silicosis itself is challenging to detect in its early stages. Early indicators of the disease include frequent dry coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. But, you can remain free of symptoms for decades after exposure to silica dust.

Silicosis continues to progress even if you suffer no further exposure. Over time, you may develop respiratory diseases. Studies suggest that exposure to silica dust can damage your immune system, leading to autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, Sjogrens' syndrome, and lupus.

Silica Exposure and Other Lung-Related Illnesses

Silicosis isn't the only health risk you might encounter. If you suffer silica exposure at work or any other way, you're at risk of developing a host of health problems.

Some of the illnesses you may experience due to silica dust exposure include:

  • Bronchitis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Lung cancer
  • Kidney disease
  • Lung damages

If you work in an industry where silica is abundant, maintain constant medical surveillance. This way, you can detect any issues early enough to prevent further damage.

Silica Exposure: Legal Remedies

You may get legal compensation if you experience health problems from silica exposure. Some situations in which you're highly likely to recover damages include the following:

  • Employers may be legally responsible for your silicosis and related diseases if they don't warn you of the dangers of silica dust exposure. They may also be liable if they don't take adequate safety measures. For example, if your employer doesn't supply you with personal protective equipment (PPE), they may be liable for damages. These cases usually involve workers' compensation claims. Some companies are responsible for failing to follow OSHA's permissible exposure limits.
  • Suppliers and manufacturers of silica-based products, such as blasting sand, can be liable if they make an unreasonably unsafe product. They can also be liable if their production process doesn't meet minimum health and safety standards.
  • Equipment manufacturers, such as sandblasting equipment manufacturers, may be liable if they don't manufacture the equipment correctly.
  • Safety equipment manufacturers can be liable if their equipment is defective or ineffective.

An experienced attorney will assess the facts of your particular case and protect your legal rights to compensation.

Reducing Exposure to Silica

If you work in an at-risk industry, you must take specific steps to protect yourself. For example, you must always use adequate respiratory protection. This includes face masks and other safety devices. Wear disposable or washable protective clothes at work and shower. Change into clean clothes before leaving the worksite. This helps prevent contamination of your car, home, and family.

You must also report your employer if they don't meet legal silica standards. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that many companies don't meet OSHA's standards. The problem is that detecting whether your employer is operating at safe silica exposure levels can be tricky.

Detecting Silica Exposure

If you suspect that you have silicosis or a related lung disease, seek immediate medical attention. Your health care provider can perform various tests, but there's no guarantee they'll detect silica dust.

According to the American Lung Associationchest X-rays do not show silica dust. But they can detect early signs of certain lung diseases. Other tests, such as lung function tests and high-resolution CT scans, can also see lung changes caused by silica dust exposure. They may detect nodules in your lungs. If so, your doctor will likely order more tests to confirm your diagnosis.

Get Legal Help Now

If you or a loved one encounter silica dust and are experiencing health problems, contact an experienced attorney immediately. Your attorney can review your claim and let you know how best to proceed.

You may need to file a worker's compensation claim. If your silicosis isn't work-related, you may need to file a product liability lawsuit.

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