Silica dust is a contaminant that many manufacturers cannot get away from. It can cause respiratory damage and cancer, yet it remains around as long as materials such as some bricks, concrete and metals are used to make products.
The Cancer Council Australia explained that silica dust is harmful when inhaled and it can lead to lung cancer, silicosis (an irreversible scarring and stiffening of the lungs), kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“As it is 100 times smaller than a grain of sand, you can be breathing it in without knowing. It is estimated that 230 people develop lung cancer each year as a result of past exposure to silica dust at work,” the council explained. The risk of developing cancer increases with long-term or repeated high-level exposure.
Information from the Cancer Council Australia suggested that about 587,000 Australian workers were exposed to silica dust in the workplace in 2011.
It has been estimated that 5758 of these workers will develop a lung cancer over the course of their life as a result of that exposure. The occupations with the greatest exposure include miners, construction workers, farmers and engineers. Activities that can increase the risk of exposure to silica dust include breaking, crushing, grinding or milling material containing silica dust, demolition work and manufacturing glass, ceramics, brick, concrete and metals.
Safe Work Australia explains that under the model Work Health and Safety Regulations, employers must set-out specific duties to manage the risks to health and safety when using, handling, generating and storing hazardous chemicals, including silica. They also have a duty to ensure the workplace exposure standard for crystalline silica is not exceeded and they must provide health monitoring to workers.
The organisation explains that exposure to silica can be minimised by installing local exhaust ventilation, implementing wet cutting methods or using tools with dust collection attachments. Administrative controls, including good housekeeping policies, shift rotations and modifying cutting sequences, can also help prevent harm from silica exposure.
With cutting of materials, and cleaning of products and surfaces, exposure to silica can be heightened. This is why Kärcher Australia sales and marketing director Lucas Paris highlights the importance of implementing a cleaning process that is thorough, but does not necessarily cost employees more time or effort. “Cleaning is integral. But most importantly, it is necessary from a safety perspective. There’s a lot of talk now around silica dust and health issues that weren’t as prevalent 10-15 years ago.”
Paris said that with more and more people getting sick from silica dust, there is a need for cleaning equipment that manages the circulation of these airborne contaminants. “We make sure our products are designed from that perspective. When we are dealing with manufacturing facilities, we are aware there is a lot of dust coming through. That helps form the crust of our engineering. We’ve had to design our products to ensure they are capturing more and more dust.”
When improving industrial sweepers, Kärcher’s engineers managed to minimise the amount of dust escaping the machine, by at least 99 per cent. Paris explained the importance of dust collection by referring to a simple household item. “If you talk about the domestic vacuum cleaner 20-30 years ago, it was almost like a diesel car with huge volumes of dust coming out of one area. This was similar to industrial sweepers. Now about 99.5 per cent of the dust can be trapped in the filters,” Paris continued.
Believing that improving equipment is an ongoing process, Kärcher puts about eight per cent of its global turnover into research and development. “We continue to work on how much our products can limit those airborne contaminants. We want to ensure we are sucking up as much dust and debris as possible.
“We are a solutions provider. We actually don’t just supply machines, we have a field of people that visit a site and audit the site and make sure its fit for purpose. We want to make sure that we are providing the right brush types for the right solutions – making sure we don’t have to visit the sight again,” Paris concluded.