There are a number of construction segments that are exposed to crystalline silica, which can cause silicosis and even death.

Workers who typically have the largest exposure to silica include those in:

  • Cement and concrete or stucco operations,
  • Abrasive blasting,
  • Jack hammering,
  • Rock and well drilling,
  • Brick and block cutting, and
  • Tunneling operations.

What are the dangers?

Crystalline silica is a dangerous dust that is often inhaled when it circulates in the air after certain construction activities.

It has been classified as a human lung carcinogen. It reacts with tissue in the lungs to create scarring or fibrotic nodules around the silica particles and may result in silicosis.

Silicosis may result in breathing difficulty, tuberculosis — and possibly death.

Exposure ranges from cumulative (over many years of exposure) to acute (exposure to high concentrations of contaminated air in short periods). Acute silicosis is identifiable by fever, shortness of breath, and cyanosis (bluish colored skin).

Silicosis is incurable and may be progressive even after dust exposure has ceased.

The danger is that silica particles are so small — about 1/100th the size of a grain of sand — and it’s impossible to detect by smell or sight. In fact, the particles are so small they can only be measured using air sampling equipment.

What you can do

It’s incumbent on you as a construction employer to ensure that your workers are not exposed to silica dust, not only for the safety of your workforce, but also your workers’ comp costs.

Here’s what OSHA recommends you do to protect workers from exposure to crystalline silica:

  • Engineering controls — mechanical ventilation for removal of the contaminated air.
  • Replace crystalline silica materials with safer substitutes whenever possible.
  • Use of NIOSH-approved respirators.
  • Wear only a Type CE abrasive blast supplied air respirator with a pressure demand valve for abrasive blasting.
  • Practice wet-dust suppression measures.
  • Isolation/enclosure/ventilation of dusty processes.
  • Use handheld grinders with a shroud and vacuum.
  • Use wet grinding/cutting methods.
  • Wear aprons or coveralls and disposable clothing.
  • Combine the use of more than one control measure.
  • Conduct environmental monitoring.
  • Educate and train workers and supervisors.
  • Proper housekeeping measures should always be in place.

One of the main ways that silica dust particles can get kicked up is after a job is finished and dust has accumulated on the floor, fixtures, machinery and inventory.

Dry sweeping can spread the dust around once again, so it’s recommended that you:

  • Use vacuum cleaners to collect dust.
  • Wet down the area prior to cleaning up.
  • Never use an air supply to blow dust off of work clothing.
  • Remove dust-contaminated clothing at the worksite to minimize transportation and relocation of the dust.


Silica dust can have long-term effects on the health of your employees, so you need to do all you can to prevent exposure. For specific techniques in various high-hazard industries, you can read this booklet by OSHA:

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