The long-term health effects of exposure to respirable dust particles, in particular crystalline silica, has been under the microscope for some time, leading to recent changes in regulatory compliance for exposure levels.

The subject remains high on the agenda for regulatory bodies including SafeWork Australia. The NSW branch of SafeWork Australia is determined to keep dust exposure low, recently updating its key compliance priorities for the first half of 2021 to retain targets for respirable dust and included management of air contamination as a key focus.

Health monitoring under the WHS regulations

As outlined in SafeWork Australia, Health Monitoring- Guide for crystalline silica, ‘The term health monitoring was established under the model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws. Health monitoring is the duty of a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) when a significant risk to health or a significant risk of exposure is identified. It involves a registered medical practitioner, with experience in health monitoring, examining, and monitoring the health of workers to see if exposure to hazardous chemicals at work is affecting worker’s health.’

What’s required for Crystalline Silica?

  • Collection of demographics, medical and occupational history
  • Records of personal exposure
  • Standardised respiratory questionnaire to be completed
  • Standardised respiratory function tests, for example, FEV1 1 , FVC2 and FEV1/FVC3
  • Chest X-Ray full PA view

During exposure to crystalline silica

The following points summarise what action is applicable to those workers who are exposed, suspected of being exposed or are concerned about being exposed to crystalline silica.

  • Respiratory function tests
    Respiratory function tests should be performed annually to see if there has been a decrease in respiratory function, other than that associated with aging.
  • Chest X-ray
    Chest X-rays should be carried out as a baseline measure. The frequency of follow up X-rays should be based on exposure levels.
  • Other health monitoring methods including use of HRCT
    High-resolution computed tomography (HRCT) has been demonstrated to be more sensitive than X-rays in detecting early dust lung disease. Use of a HRCT scan of the chest (non-contrast) may be considered depending on the worker’s history and levels of silica exposure.

Workplace exposure standard

The workplace exposure limit for crystalline silica (all forms) is:
eight-hour time weighted average (TWA) of 0.05 mg/m3

A physical examination and respiratory function testing may be required if the results of air monitoring indicate frequent or potentially high exposure (for example, half of the TWA or above). The results of air (dust) monitoring should be provided to the registered medical practitioner to inform the frequency of testing.

Removal from work

There is evidence that disease may continue to progress even after exposure to crystalline silica dust has ceased. Where the results of a medical examination indicate the worker is displaying signs or symptoms of exposure to crystalline silica, the registered medical practitioner should consider recommending the worker be removed from crystalline silica related work.

Return to work

Should a worker be removed from crystalline silica-related work, they must not return until the registered medical practitioner has:

  • assessed them as medically fit, and
  • made a recommendation to the PCBU that the worker can return to remediated crystalline silica-related work.

Dust monitoring equipment is an important part of the process when aiming to protect workers from increased levels of crystalline silica. The data they provide can help identify where and when levels exceed the recommended exposure limits. Our range of monitors includes the Trolex Air XD which also provides real-time results, measuring multiple particle sizes, at the same time.

Take a look at our dust monitoring equipment to help meet regulatory compliance for crystalline silica exposure in the workplace.

Reference: SafeWork Australia, Health Monitoring- Guide for crystalline silica