TF16B595KENTUCKY (10/27/16) — In recent decades, much has been done to improve workplace safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration instituted one such effort by requiring protective equipment to be used in the workplace.

That resolution aimed to limit silica dust inhalation, which can increase workers' risk for a potentially harmful disease known as silicosis.

A lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, silicosis mostly affects workers in the mining and glass manufacturing industries. People who work in foundries may also be vulnerable to silicosis. Understanding silicosis and its potential side effects can help workers protect themselves against this diseases that the American Lung Association notes accounts for more than 100 deaths per year in the United States alone.

What is silica?

Silica is a naturally-occurring crystal that is found in most rock beds. During activities such as mining, quarrying, glass manufacturing, and tunneling, silica dust can form. Exposure to that dust can cause scarring of the lungs that can affect a person's ability to breathe.

What causes silicosis and who is most vulnerable?

Exposure to crystalline silica and silica dust causes silicosis. The ALA notes that such exposure may result from chipping, cutting, drilling or grinding soil, sand, granite or other minerals. As a result, workers who work in certain industries are most vulnerable to silicosis. These industries include but are not limited to:

• mining (coal and hard rock)
• construction
• glass manufacturing
• steel
• ceramics
• masonry

Are there different types of silicosis?

There are three types of silicosis, and which type a person has can affect his or her prognosis.

• Chronic silicosis: The U.S. National Library of Medicine cites this as the most common form of silicosis. Chronic silicosis results from exposure to low amounts of silica dust for more than 20 years. Trouble breathing may occur in people with chronic silicosis, as silica dust can cause swelling in the lungs and chest lymph nodes. The ALA notes that chronic silicosis appears 10 to 30 years after exposure.

• Accelerated silicosis: Accelerated silicosis occurs after exposure to large amounts of silica in a five- to 15-year time period. Swelling in the lungs and associated symptoms of silicosis will occur faster in people with accelerated silicosis than those with chronic silicosis.

• Acute silicosis: Short-term exposure to very large amounts of silica can result in acute silicosis. Symptoms of acute silicosis, which can include fever, sharp chest pain and difficulty breathing, may appear suddenly. The lungs of people with acute silicosis may also fill with fluid, resulting in severe shortness of breath and low blood oxygen levels.

Can silicosis be prevented?

Workers who work in industries where exposure to silica and silica dust is a possibility should take every preventive measure possible to limit their exposure. Always wear protective gear and clothing, which the law requires employers in certain industries provide to their employees. Smokers who work in occupations vulnerable to silicosis should quit smoking, as smoking further damages and weakens the lungs. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends medical examinations before accepting employment in industries where silica exposure is possible, and examinations at least every three years thereafter.

More information about silicosis is available at www.lung.org.

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