Crystalline silica—also known as quartz dust—is a natural substance found in dirt, sand, quartz, granite, clays, and other stones. Because it is so abundant and useful, it is used in a wide range of industries in many products workers utilize on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately silica is also dangerous and can cause workers to develop life-threatening lung diseases.
What Workers Are in Danger of Dangerous Silica Exposure?
According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA), more than 2.3 million workers are exposed to this hazardous substance, with approximately 90% of them working in construction. However, construction workers are not the only ones in danger. Any worker chipping, cutting, grinding, or drilling rock, or working with products containing silica can be exposed. Employees working in these industries and with these products face a greater risk of suffering long-term health risks from exposure to silica:
- Glass production
- Pottery making
- Structural clay production
- Concrete and ready-mix concrete products
- Dental laboratories
- Paints and paint-related coatings
- Jewelry production
- Refractory installation, repair, and products
- Cut stone and related products
- Railroad track maintenance and repair
- Hydraulic fracturing in the oil and gas industry
- Abrasive blasting in construction, maritime, and other general industries
- Furnace installation and repair
- Ship building
- Stone countertop production and installation
Health Hazards Caused by Silica Exposure
When workers inhale silica and silica dust, tiny particles can enter the small air sacs in their lungs and cause long-term permanent damage. These illnesses can take years or decades to develop, and some workers may not realize that previous silica exposure is the cause of their condition. Illnesses that workers are at risk of developing include:
- Lung cancer
- Kidney disease—including end-stage renal disease
- Silicosis, which is an irreversible and untreatable lung disease that is often fatal
- Other respiratory illnesses, such as bronchitis
- Auto-immune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
- Cardiovascular diseases
OSHA’s New Rule to Protect Workers
Recognizing the serious dangers workers face from silica exposure, OSHA recently enacted new regulations to protect workers and reduce the occurrence of silicosis, lung disease, and other chronic medical conditions. OSHA believes the rules will save over 600 workers’ lives and prevent 900 cases of silicosis annually once the rules are fully implemented. New requirements include the following:
- Reduce the permissible level of exposure to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour work period.
- Require employers to use engineering controls—such as ventilation and water—to limit workers’ exposure, prove respirators when engineering controls are not sufficient, and limit workers’ access to high-exposure work areas. Employers are also required to develop an exposure plan and train workers in the dangers of silica exposure and how to reduce their risks.
- Provide medical evaluations to workers who are exposed to high levels of silica and advice on their lung health.
- Provide flexibility to help employers, especially small businesses, to protect their workers.
The new rule took effect on June 23, 2016 but has a five-year phase-in period. Employers must meet the following compliance schedule:
- Construction: June 23, 2017
- Maritime and general industries: June 23, 2018
- Hydraulic fracturing: June 23, 2018, except for the requirement of engineering controls which has a deadline of June 23, 2021
How New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Can Help
If you develop a lung disease from silica exposure at work, you will need long-term, expensive medical treatment and very likely will become disabled once your disease progresses. You could be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits to pay for your medical treatments and lost and future wages.
However, you may have the added challenge of having to prove that your silica exposure—which could have been years or decades earlier—caused your medical condition in order to qualify for benefits. Sadly, your employer’s insurance company will most likely dispute this, especially since your workers’ compensation claim could be substantial. An experienced workers’ compensation attorney can help you prove your case and obtain the benefits you deserve. Call me at 877-360-0183 to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation to learn about your rights under New Jersey’s workers’ compensation laws.