Raising awareness of silicosis

November 10, 2010

Screen captured from WorkSafeBC video "Silica Exposure" on YouTube

I read recently that two of the rescued Chilean miners have silicosis – an occupational disease that leads to severe lung damage. It usually takes many years (or decades) for workers to develop it after exposure to particles of silica, which is the basic component of sand and rock.

Any workplace activity that creates dust can expose workers to silica dust particles. It’s not only a problem for the Chilean miners, but also affects workers here in Canada.

Geoff Clark, a senior occupational hygienist with WorkSafeBC, is working hard to educate employers about the risks of this insidious occupational disease. He and his colleagues have been working with industry to produce toolbox talk guides, exposure control plans, and other resources for employers (see links below).

When I asked Geoff how prevalent the disease is, he said it’s hard to say because so many cases of the disease aren’t attributed to occupational causes: “If somebody has trouble breathing and doesn’t tell their physician what they do for a living, the doctor might say: ‘You have asthma. We’ll put you on an inhaler’ and no one ever puts two and two together.”

Geoff said it’s a challenge to convince people in their 20s to take precautions against something that may not affect them til the distant future. “How do you explain to them that their behaviour right now is going to make a difference in the next 30 or 40 years? Many of them aren’t even thinking past the next pay cheque or the next pub crawl.”

But Geoff isn’t giving up easily and he’ll keep trying to get the message out there. To that end, Geoff will be speaking about silicosis and other lung-threatening substances at the 2010 Construction Safety Conference on November 19 and 20 in Richmond, BC.

Here’s more information on the dangers of silica and how to prevent exposure. You can also download WorkSafeBC’s toolbox meeting guides and sample exposure control plans.