11 Things Jewelers Need to Know About Preventing Silica Dust Exposure
If you're in the jewelry industry, silicosis is a term you should probably be familiar with.
In the mid-2000s it was brought to the forefront because foreign gem cutters and jewelry manufacturers were allowing their employees to operate around unsafe levels of silica dust.
Recently, OSHA issued a rule that has lowered the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for workers in the United States. Other than changes in compliance for domestic jewelry businesses, this law highlights the dangers of silica dust exposure and provides a valuable reminder of how workers across many industries can stay safe while on the job.
To keep your business compliant and your employees feeling safe, it's worth reviewing what silicosis is, how it occurs, and what the new law requires before you implement preventative measures.
What is silicosis and how does it occur?
As defined by the American Lung Association, "Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica ... Over time, exposure to silica particles causes scarring in the lungs, which can harm your ability to breath."
Of the 2.3 million workers that encounter silica dust, roughly 2 million are construction workers. As they grind, crush, or drill materials that contain silica, they are inevitably exposed to microscopic particles that enter their airways. The same is true for jewelers who manufacture and cut jewelry.
Because silica dust exposure is often a repeated experience due to the demands of certain jobs, the results compound and reveal themselves over long periods of time. Much like lung cancer, advanced silicosis is not something that can be reversed.
As this video from the US Department of Labor shows, the disease has long been known to be preventable, yet continues to harm many:
What is the new law?
OSHA will institute four key provisions over time, with the most notable being PEL reduction of respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift.
While the jewelry industry probably doesn't qualify as "highly exposed workers," those in this category will be provided with medical exams to monitor their lung health.
The law also gives small businesses more flexibility to protect workers from silica dust exposure, but it will require more from them too:
- Controls such as water or ventilation to limit exposure
- Provide respirators when other controls can't meet the PEL
- Develop a written exposure control plan
- Train workers on how to limit exposures and educate them on the risks of silica
These standards take effect on June 23, 2016 and for companies like those in the jewelry industry that fall under "General Industry and Maritime," you have until June 23, 2018 to become compliant to the changes.
How can silicosis be prevented?
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Center of Disease Control (CDC) have numerous tips for minimizing the risks that silica dust exposure presents. Here are some that are applicable to the jewelry industry:
- Awareness and planning are key - think ahead to eliminate or control the source of dust and stop it from spreading to other areas of your business
- Control any hazards by utilizing sufficient amounts of water and ventilation in the cutting processes
- Dust should be collected and not released or recirculated back into the air
- Regularly maintain control systems and keep them fully operational
- Encourage workers to practice good personal hygiene (washing hands and face, not eating or drinking or using tobacco products) before, during, and after any possible exposures
- Allow employees to put on washable or disposable protective clothing while working
- If possible, have workers shower and change clothes before leaving work to reduce the risk of spreading silica to other areas
- Routinely monitor air quality to ensure control systems are working as planned and workers are not at risk
- Post warning signs near any areas where dust could be present
- Provide workers with the training necessary to keep them feeling comfortable and knowledgeable when working around hazardous materials
- Provide or encourage workers to have periodic doctor appointments that specifically address their lung health
Being aware of silicosis is one thing, but knowing how to prevent it and taking actionable measures to do so is a completely different mindset.
OSHA estimates the net benefits of the law will provide $7.7 billion in savings during the course of a year, but there's no price that can be placed on the lives saved.
Along with adhering to proper safety precautions, 900 fewer cases of silicosis could be diagnosed each year. More importantly, over 600 lives could be saved annually too.
Do your part by implementing the 11 tips above and share them with your friends in the jewelry industry that are also affected by silica dust exposure.