More than 2 million workers in Wisconsin and around the country are regularly exposed to respirable crystalline silica while on the job. Most of them are employed in the construction industry and are exposed to dust containing respirable crystalline silica when they crush or break up minerals like shale, sand and sandstone on building sites. This is a serious concern for workplace safety advocates because this dust contains particles small enough to penetrate deeply into lung tissue. Prolonged exposure to this kind of dust is known to cause the potentially deadly and incurable respiratory disease called silicosis.
Acute, chronic and accelerated silicosis
Workers who are exposed to respirable crystalline silica can develop acute, chronic or accelerated silicosis depending on the length of the exposure and the amount of silica dust inhaled. The symptoms of acute silicosis, which include fatigue, weight loss and persistent coughing, sometimes develop after only a few weeks of exposure. Chronic silicosis causes severe lung scarring and sometimes does not appear until three decades after exposure. Accelerated silicosis is usually diagnosed within 10 years of exposure. Workers with any of these respiratory diseases have higher risks of developing lung cancer, tuberculosis and chronic bronchitis.
Reducing the risks
Employers can protect workers against silicosis by using building materials that do not contain crystalline silica. When this is not possible, workers should be provided with respirators and the time they spend exposed to silica dust should be limited. Other preventative steps that can be taken include installing ventilation equipment and spraying water in areas where silica dust is likely to be present.
Silicosis-related workers’ compensation claims
Employers often challenge workers’ compensation claims that are related to workplace illnesses caused by exposure to toxic substances like silica dust. They do this because they are worried about other workers filing similar claims. Attorneys with experience in this area may argue on behalf of sick workers during workers’ compensation hearings when their claims are challenged. They could also file appeals when their claims are denied.