What is crystalline silica?
Silica is silicon dioxide, a naturally occurring and widely abundant mineral that forms the major component of most rocks and soils. There are non-crystalline and crystalline forms of silicon dioxide. The most common type of crystalline silica is quartz (CAS 14808-60-7).
Different types of rock and rock products can contain different amounts of silica, for example:
Amount of silica (%)
25 to 40
20 to 45 (typically 30)
70 to 95
Up to 97
Aggregates, mortar and concrete
What is silica dust?
Silica dust is generated in workplace mechanical processes such as crushing, cutting, drilling, grinding, sawing or polishing of natural stone or man-made products that contain silica. Some dust particles can be so small that they are not visible; these are commonly referred to as respirable particles.
Respirable silica dust particles are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and can cause irreversible lung damage.
The non-crystalline or amorphous forms of silica do not cause this kind of lung damage.
Work activities that may represent a high risk exposure
Silica is one of the most abundant minerals found in the earth’s crust and is used in many products across a variety of industries and workplaces. Crystalline silica is most dangerous to health when dust is generated, becomes airborne and is then inhaled by a worker.
Examples of work activities that can generate respirable silica dust particles include:
- during fabrication and installation of composite (engineered or manufactured) stone countertops
- excavation, earth moving and drilling plant operations
- clay and stone processing machine operations
- paving and surfacing
- mining, quarrying and mineral ore treating processes
- construction labouring activities
- brick, concrete or stone cutting; especially using dry methods
- abrasive blasting (blasting agent must not contain greater than 1 per cent of crystalline silica)
- foundry casting
- angle grinding, jack hammering and chiselling of concrete or masonry
- hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil wells, and
- pottery making.
What diseases can silica dust cause?
If a worker is exposed to and breathes in silica dust they could develop:
- acute silicosis
- can develop after a short exposure to very high levels of silica dust, within a few weeks or years, and causes severe inflammation and an outpouring of protein into the lung
- accelerated silicosis
- can develop after exposures of 3 to 10 years to moderate to high levels of silica dust and causes inflammation, protein in the lung and scarring of the lung (fibrotic nodules)
- chronic silicosis
- can develop after long term exposure to lower levels of silica dust and causes fibrotic nodules and shortness of breath
- can include progressive massive fibrosis where the fibrotic nodules in the lung aggregate
- chronic bronchitis
- lung cancer
- kidney damage, or
- scleroderma, a disease of the connective tissue of the body resulting in the formation of scar tissue in the skin, joints and other organs of the body.
Choosing the best control measure
Under the model WHS Regulations, PCBUs have specific duties to manage the risks to health and safety when using, handling, generating and storing hazardous chemicals, including silica. PCBUs also have a duty to ensure the workplace exposure standard for crystalline silica is not exceeded and to provide health monitoring to workers.
Managing risks and worker exposures to silica can be achieved by selecting and implementing measures using the hierarchy of controls:
- substitution such as sourcing composite stone benchtops with a lower percentage of silica
- isolation of the hazard – using principles of safe work design to designate areas for tasks that generate dust and appropriate worker positioning during these tasks, using enclosures and automation to conduct dust generating tasks
- engineering controls that minimise the risk of exposure to generated dust, for example, local exhaust ventilation, water suppression (wet cutting) or using tools with dust collection attachments
- should a risk still remain; administrative controls, including good housekeeping policies, shift rotations and modifying cutting sequences
- should a risk still remain; personal protective equipment including appropriate respiratory equipment (generally a minimum of a P2 efficiency half face respirator) and work clothing that does not collect dust.
More than one control will normally be required to adequately protect workers.
The workplace exposure standard
The workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica (silica dust) that must not be exceeded is 0.05 mg/m3 (eight-hour time weighted average).
PCBUs should keep worker exposure to silica dust as low as reasonably practicable. Air monitoring must be conducted if there is any uncertainty that the exposure standard is being exceeded or to find out if there is a risk to a worker’s health.
Learn more about the changes to the WES for silica dust and use the silica dust workplace checklist to manage the change in your workplace.
Health monitoring for workers exposed to crystalline silica
Under the model WHS Regulations, PCBUs must provide health monitoring for workers if they carrying out ongoing work using, handling, generating or storing crystalline silica and there is a significant risk to the worker’s health because of exposure.
The minimum health monitoring requirements for crystalline silica include:
- collection of demographic, medical and occupational history
- records of personal exposure
- standardised respiratory questionnaire
- standardised respiratory function tests, for example, FEV1, FVC and FEV1/FVC, and
- chest X-Ray full PA view (baseline and high risk workers only).
Further information about the duties for health monitoring can be found here:
Further information about WHS duties related to crystalline silica
You can find further information on what you must do to keep your workers safe from the risks of crystalline silica in our Working with Silica and Silica Containing Products Guidance Material.
For specific information on working with engineered stone products refer to the model Code of Practice: Managing the risks of respirable crystalline silica from engineered stone in the workplace
Safe Work Australia sought feedback on the Consultation Regulation Impact Statement: Managing the risks of respirable crystalline silica at work (CRIS).
The CRIS includes regulatory and non- regulatory options informed by the work of the National Dust Disease Taskforce and stakeholder consultation.
The options in the CRIS do not expressly include consideration of a ban on engineered stone. This is because the National Dust Disease Taskforce’s Final Report recommended a ban be considered if “there is no measurable and acceptable improvement in regulatory compliance rates for the engineered stone sector as reported by jurisdictions and evidence indicates preventative measures are not effectively protecting those working with engineered stone from silicosis and silica-associated diseases”. The all of Australian Governments’ response to National Dust Disease Taskforce’s Final Report recognised that “… a comprehensive framework [is required] to evaluate the effectiveness of compliance with WHS duties and the effectiveness of measures to protect workers, including any further measures implemented following [this] regulatory impact analysis process”.
However, your views on a product ban can be provided through this consultation. Interested parties were invited to comment on the options outlined in this consultation RIS. The consultation process was open until 15 August 2022.