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Suppressing silica…new tool offers exposure control blueprint

A new web-based tool aims to help assess the degree to which construction workers are exposed to hazardous silica dust and suggest task-specific exposure control plans.
“The Silica Control Tool will help empower employers and workers from workplaces and operations of all sizes to understand the hazards and prevention strategies related to working with silica,” explained Dr. Joel Moody, Chief Prevention Officer (CPO) and Assistant Deputy Minister, Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development in a press release announcing the availability of the new prevention tool. “I want to recognize and thank OHCOW for their leadership to make this project happen.”

DON’T DELAY…access to the Silica Control Tool available now!

Originally developed in 2017 by the British Columbia Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA) and University of British Columbia researchers, the Silica Control Tool has been customized by Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) to meet the needs of construction workers and their employers here in Ontario. It is designed for use on mobile devices and computers.

The tool generates silica dust exposure estimates based on information the user provides including materials, tools and specific tasks that is then compared to an existing database.  The tool also generates a corresponding exposure control plan considering measures beginning at the top of the hierarchy of controls. This point is important considering Canadian research funded by the Ontario government found personal protective equipment (PPE) listed at the bottom of the controls hierarchy is not the most cost-effective method of protecting workers from silica exposures.

Given the tool is data-driven, the information provided by new users is also added to the database, keeping it current with activities and practices in the construction industry.

Widespread exposure…considerable health impacts

Each year approximately 153,000 Ontario workers are exposed to silica, many in the construction sector.

Silica is a naturally occurring mineral present in rocks, soil and sand. It is also found in construction materials including brick, concrete and mortar. Cutting, grinding, drilling and breaking these materials will release silica dust into the air.
Airborne silica dust is easily inhaled into the lungs causing inflammation and scarring. Over time, this can cause silicosis—an incurable and progressively disabling lung disease. For those exposed to significant amounts of respirable silica, the timeframe from exposure to suffering can be accelerated.
The significant burden of illness associated with silica exposure also includes chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, pulmonary tuberculosis and lung cancer. The Occupational Cancer Research Centre, for instance, estimates roughly 200 Ontario workers are diagnosed with lung cancer annually from this exposure, roughly half of which are from the construction sector.
Silica is also a well-recognized hazard in many industries beyond construction including mining, glass manufacturing, sandblasting and foundry work. Garnering much attention of late is the growing concern for workers who fabricate and install stone countertops exposed to extreme volumes of fine respirable silica dust generated during fabrication.

Support for preventive action now

“Considering the adverse health effects are well known and workers are still exposed to exceedingly high levels of silica, this is a great time for this tool to not only be made available but to have workplaces understand there needs to be better controls,” explained Carmine Tiano, director of occupational services, Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario during a recent webinar introducing this new awareness and prevention tool. 
Tiano went on to explain it’s imperative unions and various partners in the occupational health and safety prevention system work together to get the word out to construction workers and employers of the availability of this important resource. “The only way the tool will be effective is if people use it,” he emphasized.
In recognition of the health risks faced by workers in other sectors, Dr. Moody in a recent letter to health and safety system partners about the Silica Control Tool suggests, “The tool has the potential to expand to other sectorslike mining and industrial, to reduce silica exposures in more Ontario workplaces."

To this last point, many continue to call on the Ontario government to lower the occupational exposure limit (OEL) for silica (crystalline) to 0.025 mg/m3—the level currently recommended by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists and adopted by many other Canadian jurisdictions.

WHSC can help
Ontario’s official government-designated training centre, Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) provides training for workplaces in all sectors of the economy, private and public. In recent years WHSC has also become  a leading provider of OHS training for the construction sector. Some programs are essential, others mandatory, including WHMIS and training for supervisors, joint health and safety committee members and worker health and safety representatives helping to prepare them to act on their significant rights and obligations in pursuit of safer, healthier work.
Check out our complete in-person and virtual training schedules.

Related resources:
WHSC silica resource line
Research on silica exposure controls finds PPE comes at a cost
Lung disease linked to stone countertop fabrication
WHMIS resources
Ontario Silica Control Tool

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