Crystalline silica is often used as a blasting agent in crushing and drilling rock or in masonry and concrete work. You can breathe in silica particles, and over time, the exposure to these tiny particles of dust can cause scarring in your lungs. This condition is known as silicosis, which is a progressive, disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease.
Silicosis symptoms include:
- Weight loss
- Low blood oxygen levels
- Difficulty breathing
- Possible fever
- Chest pain
Symptoms of silicosis appear weeks after exposure, but sometimes, it can take 10 or more years for serious health problems to show up. Silicosis makes you more susceptible to bronchitis, respiratory failure, tuberculosis, scleroderma and renal disease. The American Lung Association reports that about 100 people die each year from silicosis, but about 2 million workers are potentially exposed to silica through their occupation.
If you work in an industry which uses crystalline silica, you need to take precautions to prevent exposure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends these steps:
- Use water sprays or wet methods for cutting or drilling
- Use a non-crystalline silica blasting method
- When sandblasting, use a respirator to keep the silica particles from getting into your lungs
- Eat and drink away from silica dust
- Do not smoke around silica dust
- Wash your hands and face after exposure, especially before eating, smoking or drinking
- Make sure you follow the controls at your workplace
Diagnosing and treating silicosis
The American Lung Association recommends talking to your doctor about silicosis if you work in an industry where you have been exposed to crystalline silica and have a cough or problems breathing. Silicosis cannot usually be diagnosed in one visit. You may need to have a chest X-ray, breathing tests and a CT scan. Your doctor may order a biopsy of the lungs to assess the degree of damage.
Currently, there is no cure for silicosis. However, many of the symptoms can be managed. You might need medications to decrease the sputum you are producing or to reduce swelling in your lungs. Bronchodilators relax the air tubes, which help you breathe. Some patients require oxygen. More advanced silicosis might be treated with a lung transplant.
Silicosis is a disease that has long-term effects. If you have been diagnosed with silicosis, it is important to have a full assessment of your condition. Injuries that occur on the job should be covered through workers’ compensation, but it can be difficult to assert a claim relating to a occupational illness that started years ago. You might benefit by speaking to an attorney who understands workers’ compensation claims and can offer you information about your legal rights.