According to The Mesothelioma Center, asbestos exposure is the leading cause of work-related deaths in Canada.
Over the last century, countless lives have been lost due to the hazardous nature of asbestos. Many countries have banned its use, including Canada, which passed the legislation in 2018.
Silica—another carcinogenic compound—has been dubbed “the next asbestos” because of its similar effect on the lungs.
Here, we’ve explored the risk of silica and asbestos exposure with regard to construction workers.
Why is asbestos harmful?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous compound that was popularly used because of its physical properties—resistance to heat, electricity, and corrosion, to name a few.
Exposure to asbestos during construction and mining is hazardous. When asbestos fibrils are inhaled, they enter the lungs and are trapped inside. Over time, they can cause inflammation, internal bleeding, and even genetic damage.
Mesothelioma is a form of progressive lung cancer that is almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. It is also linked to other diseases such as asbestosis, laryngeal cancer, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Why is silica harmful?
Silica is also a naturally occurring common mineral. Its crystalline form has multiple industrial applications, and it’s found in many building materials, including brick, asphalt and mortar.
Cutting, grinding, or drilling any such building material leads to the formation of silica dust. These dust particles if inhaled or ingested, can create serious health issues.
Silicosis is an irreversible lung condition caused primarily by silica inhalation. Trapped silica particles cause scarring on the walls of the lungs, causing them to harden. It compromises the lung’s ability to function correctly and makes the individual prone to other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis.
Why are construction workers more at risk?
Construction workers are routinely exposed to harmful chemicals, simply because it’s the nature of their work. Exposure to dust and all the harmful particles in it is customary. Abrasive blasting, sawing, scraping, drilling, and cutting are all tasks construction workers have to undertake.
According to CAREX Canada, nearly 380,000 workers are exposed to silica in Canada. The overwhelming majority of these are from the construction sector.
CAREX Canada also reports that approximately 152,000 Canadian workers are exposed to asbestos; the majority of which, once again, are in the construction sector. Following the ban of asbestos and asbestos-related products in 2018, the number has gone down significantly.
However, the threat is not over because many individuals experience latent symptoms. This means that the time between initial exposure and the emergence of symptoms often takes 40 years or more.
What safety precautions should construction workers take?
Elimination: Removing the hazardous material should be a priority. For example, garnet can be used for the sand-blasting process instead of silica.
Equipment: Workers should be given properly fitting protective equipment such as eye-glasses and face masks.
Engineering Controls: This includes designing facilities, machinery and processes to reduce exposure.
Education: Teaching construction workers about the hazardous effects of silica and asbestos can help curb exposure. It allows workers to be more conscious of their surroundings and protect themselves better.
At Metro Safety Training, we provide a variety of training courses on occupational health and safety in British Columbia. Our Occupational First Aid course covers all the basics of first aid in the workplace.
We also offer more dedicated courses. Our asbestos/lead/silica awareness course is specifically designed for individuals who enter workspaces with hazardous material on a routine basis.