How to Protect Yourself from Silica Dust

February 21, 2024

The construction industry is a dangerous business: falls, electrocution, burns, and unsafe equipment are frequent causes of injury, but they are far from the only hazards.

Every year, approximately 2.3 million U.S. workers are exposed to silica dust, and risk developing serious health conditions as a result of this exposure.

What is silica dust? Where does it come from? And most importantly, how can you protect yourself and others from it? 

Noncrystalline silica & Crystalline silica

What Is Silica?

Understanding silica dust means understanding what silica is. Silica is a mineral commonly found in the earth’s crust. It is one of the most common minerals on earth. 

There are two forms of silica: crystalline and noncrystalline. Noncrystalline silica is found in materials such as silicone and glass. 

Crystalline silica is a mineral that occurs in several forms. The most common of these is quartz. As a result, the terms quartz and crystalline silica are often used interchangeably. All types of soils contain at least trace amounts of crystalline silica. 

Products have been made using silica for thousands of years. Many of these products are made from silica sand, such as glass and ceramics. 

So what’s the danger?

While silica is naturally occurring, there is a danger involved with working with silica: silica dust, the result of working with materials that contain crystalline silica.

Respirable crystalline silica

What Is Silica Dust?

When materials containing silica (such as concrete or mortar) are cut, crushed, or impacted during work, dust is released. While it’s obvious that you shouldn’t breathe in dust, the real danger lies in the dust particles that are the hardest to see.

Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) are very small particles of silica that are created when cutting, sawing, drilling, crushing, or otherwise impacting concrete, stone, brock, and mortar. For example, concrete removal can be a source of silica dust, due to the cutting or breaking of the concrete. Other activities such as abrasive sandblasting and manufacturing concrete blocks, bricks, or ceramic products can also expose workers to silica dust. 

The small size of RCS particles is what makes them so dangerous. These airborne particles are small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs, where they can cause serious damage.

Due to the nature of their work, laborers in the construction industry are especially vulnerable to silica dust exposure. Workers who undergo tasks such as rock drilling, tunneling, foundry work, stonecutting, and concrete cutting are exposed to high levels of silica dust.

Exposed to high levels of silica dust

Health Problems Associated With Silica Dust

Silica dust exposure can lead to severe health problems. These problems may occur after several years of exposure, or in severe cases, within months. These diseases may include:

Kidney disease

Workers exposed to silica dust are more likely to develop kidney disease. Kidney disease occurs when damaged kidneys cannot function as they normally would, and are unable to filter extra water and waste from the blood.

Symptoms of kidney disease include high blood pressure, haematuria (blood in the urine), a change in the frequency or amount of urine, and edema (swelling due to trapped fluids) around the legs and ankles.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the lungs. Like other types of cancer, it is the result of cells growing out of control.  

Symptoms of lung cancer may include chest pain, a persistent or worsening cough, shortness of breath, and frequent infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis.


COPD or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease refers to a group of diseases that block airflow and cause breathing issues. The two most common COPD conditions are emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Emphysema is the damage and destruction of the alveoli, the tiny, balloon-shaped air sacs located at the end of the lung’s bronchiole tubes. The alveoli move oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules in and out of your bloodstream, expanding during inhalation to take in oxygen, and shrinking during exhalation to expel carbon dioxide. With emphysema, these air sacs become damaged and eventually rupture, preventing oxygen from moving through the bloodstream.

Symptoms of emphysema include fatigue, coughing and phlegm production, and cyanosis (a blue tint to the skin caused by the lack of oxygen).

Bronchitis is the inflammation of the lining of bronchial tubes or bronchi. These tubes are the airways that let air in and out of your lungs. When irritated, these tubes can become swollen and build up mucus. This leads to increased difficulty in moving oxygen into the lungs, as well as exhaling carbon dioxide out of the body. 

Bronchitis can be either acute or chronic. Acute bronchitis typically lasts for only a few days. Acute bronchitis is caused by the same viruses that cause the cold and flu.

The other type of bronchitis, chronic bronchitis, is a serious ongoing condition that can be caused by a silica dust hazard. Symptoms of chronic bronchitis include frequent coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, and tightness in the chest.


Finally, we have silicosis. As the name implies, this is caused exclusively by breathing in tiny particles of silica.

These silica particles can cause lung inflammation and pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring).

Initial symptoms may include shortness of breath and a cough. As scarring worsens, difficulty breathing may occur, along with fatigue and fever. Silicosis sufferers are also vulnerable to developing COPD and lung cancer.  

HydroDemolition precision cutting

How to Protect Yourself and Others From Silica Dust Exposure

The health problems associated with silica dust exposure are very serious and often progressive. Preventing inhalation of silica is key to keeping your work site from becoming a silica dust hazard. Controlling the hazard can be accomplished in a few different ways.

Isolate the Work Area

Establishing a perimeter around the work area and enclosing or isolating it minimizes the number of people exposed to silica dust. Additionally, limiting the amount of time a worker is within the perimeter will also limit exposure.

PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)

Respirators and coveralls are a must. Respirators will prevent inhalation of silica at the job site. Coveralls will prevent the spread of dust to one’s clothes and other surfaces, such as their personal vehicle. 


A key element of minimizing airborne dust is to use water. A wet-cutting system such as HydroDemolition uses high-pressure streams of water to cut through concrete and other materials. The result is precision cutting that controls silica at the source, preventing airborne particles from occurring.   

Serious Safety on Every Project

Exposure to silica dust, especially for prolonged periods, can lead to a myriad of serious, irreversible health conditions. However, by limiting exposure to silica dust, as well as preventing exposure via techniques such as HydroDemolition, silica hazards can be greatly reduced.

At Aggregate Technologies, we take safety very seriously. So seriously in fact, that we have won awards for our safety training and performance. 

A safe project doesn’t mean sacrificing quality work. We have over 25 years of experience completing challenging projects safely and on time. 

Contact us to learn more about our HydroDemolition and other safety practices.

Contact us when you need a contractor with a record of safety and success for your concrete cutting and hydrodemolition needs.

Contact Us For a Quote