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What is Silicosis?

Silicosis is a progressive, disabling, and often fatal lung disease caused by exposure to silica dust. Silica is one of the most common minerals in the earth’s crust and is a basic component of soil, sand, granite, and most other types of rock. The cutting, drilling, breaking, or blasting of these materials produces airborne silica dust. The size of the silica dust determines the amount of risk it can have on an individual. For example, smaller particles can be inhaled into the lungs where they can cause damage, whereas larger particles are less of a concern because they cannot be inhaled. Breathing silica dust can cause silicosis. When inhaled into the lungs, silica dust will stick to the lung tissue and cause scarring. This causes the lungs to become less flexible, which makes it difficult to breathe. There are many tests that can confirm the diagnosis of silicosis, such as chest x-rays, chest CT scans, breathing tests, a bronchoscopy, biopsy of the lungs, and other tests to rule out similar diseases. It’s important to note that once silicosis develops, the damage is permanent and there is no recovery.

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    Symptoms of silicosis include:

    • Shortness of breath
    • Fever
    • Fatigue
    • Loss of appetite
    • Chest pain
    • Dry, nonproductive cough
    • Respiratory failure

    Effects of Silicosis

    Silicosis makes an individual more susceptible to the following:

    • Lung cancer
    • Tuberculosis (TB)
    • Bronchitis/Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
    • Scleroderma
    • Possible renal disease

    Who is exposed?

    Silica exposures occur across a broad range of industries and activities. These include:

    • Construction work
    • Sandblasting
    • Tunneling
    • Mining
    • Quarrying
    • Railroad track work
    • Stone cutting
    • Glass manufacturing
    • Steel industry work

    Safeguards and Prevention

    Prevention is the best way to avoid silicosis. There are many steps individuals and employers can take in order to avoid exposure, including:

    • Use water spray systems to keep dust levels down
    • Use proper ventilation
    • Wear dust masks or respirators
    • Do not eat or drink near exposed areas
    • Wash hands and face before eating or drinking away from exposed areas
    • Shower and change into clean clothes before leaving work to help prevent contamination of your car and home

    Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster

    The Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster illustrates the severity of silicosis and the importance of safeguards in the workplace. Beginning in 1927, the construction of a three-mile-long tunnel turned out to be one of America’s worst industrial disasters. The mountain rock that workers were drilling near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia contained extremely high levels of silica. Wet drilling techniques were not used to keep dust levels down and the 3,000 underground workers were not given masks or respirators. These factors all contributed to workers contracting silicosis at alarming rates. Over half of the men who worked underground at Hawk’s Nest for at least two months died within five years of the tunnel’s completion. The average length of work at Hawk’s Nest was between 15 and 16 weeks. The total death toll is thought to be well over 1,000 workers. Most of the workers were migrants and an accurate death toll will never be known because many of the sickened workers returned home to die.

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