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What Is Silicosis?


Silicosis is a lung disease characterized by inflammation and scarring of the lung tissues that reduces the amount of oxygen the lungs can take in and process. Silicosis causes permanent damage to the lungs, and it gets progressively worse and can be fatal. The main cause of silicosis is breathing in crystalline silica, also known as silica dust. The dust contains particles small enough to be respirated or inhaled into the body. The tiny particles become trapped in the lung tissue, where they buildup and cause scarring, which makes the lung tissue stiff.

There are three types of silicosis:

  • Chronic silicosis: Chronic silicosis is the most common form of the disease. Exposure to low or moderate amounts of silica can cause damage to the lungs that may not show up until decades later. Often, mild symptoms appear first and worsen over time. Symptoms include swelling in the chest and chest lymph nodes, which makes it difficult to breathe.
  • Acute silicosis: Acute silicosis occurs sooner, between a few weeks and up to two years after significant exposure to a large amount of crystalline silica. This can cause the lungs to fill with fluid and become very inflamed. Patients with acute silicosis experience severe shortness of breath and low blood oxygen levels.
  • Accelerated silicosis: Accelerated silicosis symptoms appear five to 10 years after substantial exposure to silica dust and quickly accelerate.

Who Is at Risk of Silica Exposure?

Silica is a crystal that is commonly found everywhere in nature, such as in most rock beds, mineral ores, as well as being a major component of sand. Silica dust is created when rock is being cut or polished, or sand is being used for blasting or glass blowing.

Workers who are at risk of exposure to silica dust include those in the following industries:

  • Mining
  • Stone cutting or masonry
  • Quarrying
  • Sand blasting
  • Glass manufacturing
  • Road and building construction or repair
  • Roofing
  • Plaster or drywall installation
  • Steel manufacturing
  • Ceramic manufacturing

Every year, an estimated 2.3 million workers in the United States are exposed to silica dust, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Inhaling the dust formed from processes like cutting, sawing, drilling, crushing, and grinding rock, stone, bricks, mortar, concrete, and blocks puts workers at risk of developing silicosis.

Other operations that present a safety hazard include abrasive blasting with sand, sanding concrete walls, cutting stone countertops, and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Even if the materials being used contain only a small amount of crystalline silica, if the production method results in a high dust concentration, the outcome is a hazardous level of exposure for the employees.

The OSHA has strict standards for workplaces where silica dust is present. There is a standard for the construction industry, and a standard that applies to general industry and maritime. Both detail the permissible exposure limit averaged over an eight-hour work shift and require employers to use practices that minimize exposure to silica dust.

What Are the Symptoms of Silicosis?

Some types of silicosis take years and even decades to appear, so a worker may not realize they are suffering from the illness. Early symptoms such as phlegm or a cough that does not go away may not be immediately recognized as silicosis. However, trouble breathing is a tell-tale sign that a worker needs to see a medical professional. Later symptoms of silicosis include fatigue, weight loss, chest pain, shortness of breath, blue lips, and sudden fevers.

Silicosis can be diagnosed with a chest X-ray or CT scan to check for scar tissue in the lungs. A bronchoscopy is a way for the doctor to look inside the lungs for damage via a thin tube with a tiny camera on the end. If a lung tissue biopsy is needed, the doctor will use a needle to take a sample of tissue from a nodule that can be checked under a microscope.

Treatment for Silicosis and Complications

There is no treatment specifically for silicosis. Symptoms may be treated with cough medicine, bronchodilators, and supplemental oxygen. For patients experiencing respiratory infections, antibiotics can be prescribed. To prevent the progression of the disease, it is crucial that the source of silica dust exposure be removed. In severe cases of silicosis, a lung transplant may be necessary.

Workers with chronic silicosis are at higher risk for complications from other illnesses, like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and flu. They also commonly develop other lung diseases, such as lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

How Can Employers Control Silica Dust Exposure in the Workplace?

An ideal workplace has no materials containing crystalline silica, but this is not always possible. By using good engineering practices and controls, employers can significantly reduce the amount of silica dust produced in the workplace. There should be a written exposure control plan. The following are some of the ways to control silica exposure:

  • Using water to wet down dust prevents it from entering the air where it can be inhaled. Tools that have integrated water delivery systems for cutting, drilling, grinding, chipping, and sawing reduce dust.
  • Using localized dust collection systems, such as shrouds that remove dust at the point where it is made.
  • Operating equipment within enclosures to isolate the work process.
  • Cleaning with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuums.
  • Replacing air filters regularly and avoiding dry sweeping.
  • Providing workers with the appropriate personal protective equipment, such as respirators, when controls are not adequate to limit dust exposure.
  • Limiting worker access to the areas of high exposure.
  • Providing training and education for workers about the hazards of silica dust. Workers should never eat, drink, or smoke in areas containing crystalline silica. Following exposure, they should always wash their hands and face before eating and drinking.

There should also be regular air quality testing to ensure it is within OSHA standards. Workers that work in areas of high exposure should be offered medical exams to monitor their health. Those negligently exposed to silica dust may be able to file a toxic tort claim.

Wilmington Toxic Tort Lawyers at Jacobs & Crumplar, P.A. Fight for Those Exposed to Silica Dust

If you have developed an illness as a result of silica dust exposure, contact our experienced Wilmington toxic tort lawyers at Jacobs & Crumplar, P.A. today. Call us at 302-656-5445 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation. Located in Wilmington and Millsboro, Delaware, we represent clients throughout Dover, New Castle County, and Sussex County.