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Even with limit, workers exposed to silica suffer

The federal government has placed limits on the amount of toxic substances workers can be exposed to on the job, but workers can still suffer serious injuries or even death as a result of exposure. Silica dust is one of these harmful substances that can cause serious health complications for American workers, particularly in the construction industry.

In 1971, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) imposed a limit on silica exposure of 0.1 milligrams per cubic meter of air. However, OSHA is now planning on slashing the limit to 0.05 mg/m3, which it said could save around 700 lives each year.

Silica, also known as powdered quartz, is a known carcinogen that can lead to devastating lung problems in workers who are exposed. OSHA estimates that about 2.2 million Americans are exposed to silica on the job, many of whom work in construction.

Silica exposure can lead to the lung disease silicosis as well as lung cancer. Smokers are especially at risk of developing these deadly conditions, which is why experts advise anyone who has been exposed to silica to quit smoking. It is estimated that 1,700 Americans develop silicosis each year, and there is currently no cure or treatment for the condition.

According to OSHA, silica is used as an abrasive blasting agent and is a component found in most types of rock and soil. In order to reduce silica exposure in the workplace, experts advise employers to use less hazardous materials, ventilate the workplace and use water-based methods for cutting, drilling and grinding to keep the tiny silica particles from entering the air.

Workers who were exposed to silica in the workplace and ended up suffering injuries or illness as a result may be entitled to workers' compensation benefits. A personal injury claim may also potentially be an option if an employer failed to follow OSHA's regulations on silica exposure in the workplace.

Source: Reuters, "OSHA plans to slash silica workplace exposure limits," Anne Harding, Jan. 1, 2014

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