Health & Safety – Love It Or Loathe It?
Whether it’s silica dust, or lifting and handling, or any other safety concern…
And whether it’s the HSE here in the UK, or OSHA on the other side of the Pond in the US, the answer to the question is likely to be the same…
I guess it probably depends on the lens you look at them through, doesn’t it?
As an employee in a dangerous work environment, you probably appreciate what they’re trying to achieve for you…
As an employer you might find it admirable that there is a government regulatory body helping you look after your staff…
And as a business owner you might be monumentally pee’d off. Because there’s always someone snooping on your every move and demanding you pay more money – either in new safety equipment, or worse – a fine.
Pressure to improve safety for HSE & OSHA
The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – and it’s US counterpart the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – has been under a lot of pressure from the general public to ensure that companies keep workers safe by enforcing health and safety guidelines.
As we all know, one way they do this is through random inspections at different workplaces.
When these inspections find something awry, they can often result in prosecution and fines.
Even during the height of the pandemic, the UK’s HSE still prosecuted for fines totalling a fraction under £27 million (2020-21).Source: HSE’s Health and Safety at Work – Summary Statistics for Great Britain 2021
And one of their favourite workplaces to be targeting seems to be stone fabricators.
Let’s face it, a Safety Inspector – whether HSE or OSHA – on a site visit to a worktop company is going to be like a kid in a candy store.
There’s all the risks they love – lifting, handling, machinery, vehicles, particulates, you name it…
So what’s the topic of choice today, Ash?
Silica exposure – let’s talk about the air in your lungs
For years, the HSE and OSHA have been fascinated with the fundamental ability of an employee to breathe well at work.
Now forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious, but it’s a pretty necessary bodily function, right?
Yet it’s so often taken for granted, especially in our industry.
If you’ve worked even a day in a stone workshop, you know that dust levels are spectacularly high.
It’s a fact of life in this game.
But let’s be clear – you cannot afford to be complacent about it.
Exposure to silica dust is bad.
And prolonged silica exposure is worse.
Your crystalline silica dust is a killer.
Why silica dust exposure is a concern
You need to be extremely mindful of that last sentence. The silica dust you’re creating and inhaling every single day could lead to serious health concerns for your employees down the line.
In their 2021 statistics summary, the UK’s HSE reported that occupational lung diseases account for over 92% of total annual deaths estimated to be linked to past exposures at work.
And it’s just as bad in the US. A University of Washington-led study a few years ago concluded that almost 7% of all deaths in the United States were due to chronic respiratory illness.
And if that doesn’t ring alarm bells already from a health perspective, consider the court cases and lawsuits you’ll have on your hands. It’s only a matter of time until the risks of particulates exposure at work becomes more widely appreciated.
“Where there’s blame, there’s a claim!”
Which means unless you want to be pushing lung scarring, organ failure and the risk of a long, painful death on your workforce…
Or unless you want to spending all your hard won funds on costly lawyers and pricey payouts…
It’s vital that we all monitor our dust levels regularly.
Inhalable vs Respirable – What’s The Difference?
Let’s look at some quick definitions before we go any further…
Inhalable – particulates small enough (generally 10 microns) to enter the nose and mouth during breathing and available to be deposited in your pipes.
Respirable – small enough (generally 5 microns) to penetrate the part of the lungs where the gas exchange takes place.
Now – just go back and re-read that “respirable” definition again, and think on it for a second…
We’re talking about particles of stone and crystalline silica dust so small that you suck them in with every breath… And then they get right inside the operational bits of your lungs that handle the basic act of breathing.
Can you imagine what damage that does, to have foreign bits of silica dust inside your soft tissue?
And let’s be brutally honest – once it’s done, that lung damage (caused by your countertop dust) is irreversible.
Your body attempts to fight off the invasion of foreign objects and protect itself from particles in your lungs by covering them over – with scar tissue.
And once your lungs are a mangled mess of scar tissue, there ain’t no fix for it.
Do you get an idea as to why that might be considered a bad thing?
Why it’s important to monitor your silica dust
In short, if it’s 10 microns or less in size, you need to know it’s there.
But how are you going to know if you’re not monitoring your dust levels and your exposure?
Yes, we can all look around our workshops and agree there’s dust. It’s everywhere.
But that’s not exactly a scientific process, is it?
One of the HSE’s favoured and highly effective indicators as to what standard to expect elsewhere on a visit is to check for dust monitors at an inspection.
This means that fabricators like you need to be making sure that your dust monitors are working correctly and will flag up any problems with your dust exposure as soon as they happen.
What do you mean, you don’t have any dust monitors to check in the first place?
That needs fixing.[That’s where we can help. Go to sig.ltd/bustmydust for the UK, or sig.ltd/bustmydust-us if you’re in the US.]
Because once you’re armed with dust monitoring data, you can better respond to the challenges of dust control.
Silica Dust Control – The Basics
Even over the very few years I’ve been in the industry, I’ve seen a number of methods of dust control being used in various workshops.
But as we’ve just highlighted already, smart dust control always starts with empowered decision making.
And empowered decisions can only come from accurate data.
As anyone who works with stone will tell you, it’s impossible to contain the dust within a given area.
Stone fabricators and countertop companies generate a huge amount of dust when working their material every single day, even when working wet.
Some fabricators are more aware of the dangers than others. I’ve seen powerful waterwalls and dust extractors (like these popular Turrini MB units) at one end. At the other end I’ve seen fabricators polishing dry without even so much as a mask or an open door.
The thing is, regardless of the measures you do or do not employ, everyone is at risk from exposure to the dust that working quartz and granite generates.
The bottom line is that there are serious health risks involved when working with stone products. And you shouldn’t have to leave it to experience to tell you how much exposure to the dust will cause harm.
If prevention is better than cure, then the only way to control the risk would be to not work stone at all.
But that’s a stupid and pointless statement, isn’t it?
Because if you’re reading this, your livelihood comes from working stone.
How To Protect Yourself From Stone and Quartz Dust Inhalation
As with most things, your ability to best protect yourself is always going to boil down to budget.
As a bare minimum you should be looking hard into the PPE you issue you teams.
Keep your body safe by using protection such as gloves, full-face respirators (with the correct filters), and coveralls over your regular clothes.
If there’s no full-face respirator on offer (which let’s face it, is likely the case) then correct eye protection is a must too.
Water – thankfully, there’s not too many places out there still working dry…
But there are still far more than there should be.
For the love of all things holy, use water.
Now let’s be clear on one thing – water isn’t a catch-all safety device.
Using water when cutting and polishing helps to trap the dust particles, and weigh them down enough to drop them to the floor, out of the way.
But that’s it.
Water doesn’t magically make the dust disappear; it’s not the Febreze of the fabshop.
All water does is just weight them so the encapsulated dust particles simply drop to the floor.
So what happens when the water evaporates?
The dry dust is left behind, and walking through it will disturb it, make it airborne once again and the cycle starts from the beginning.
So yes – use water.
But remember that the dust is still going to be there.
Your easiest dust monitoring solution
Your most powerful option is to be adding a small, lightweight, continuous personal dust monitor to the PPE items you’re issuing to the teams.
Because with a portable, body worn device, they can be providing you a twofold benefit. As the business owner you’re getting that powerful, real-time data you need to drive your decision making… On top of this, they can also be monitoring the air and dust exposure of the user and be alerting them to high exposure immediately.
There are a number of devices able to do this, of course. Our recommendation is the small, lightweight XD One personal dust monitor from Trolex (check it out here if you’re in the UK, or take a look here if you’re in the US).
As a powerfully accurate real time dust monitor, your XD One from Trolex can be statically mounted in key locations around your workshop too. It doesn’t have to constitute the latest addition to the individual PPE kit.
But however you choose to locate it and deploy it, it addresses the current gaps in your proactive dust monitoring. It also opens up your ability to combat your exposure to silica dust and other harmful particulates in your workshop.
Safety can be a pain in the ass, for sure…
But safety isn’t a dirty word.
Let’s look out how we can protect our staff – and our businesses – from harm. And exposure to silica dust is about as harmful as it gets.