Crystalline silica is much more than just a mineral – it is an essential building block of modern life. Also commonly known as quartz, it is made up of silicon and oxygen, two of the most common elements on the planet. It is so common that it makes up more than 12% of the earth’s crust, and is present in almost every type of rock.
Products containing crystalline silica have been used for thousands of years to build and make things, and are still key ingredients of essentials we use on a daily basis – our computers and phones, cars and buses, roads and railways, glass and ceramics, and even our homes.
In these everyday contexts, crystalline silica is completely safe. However, where it can negatively impact health is in industrial workplaces. Whilst crystalline silica itself is inert, when minerals or rocks containing it are cut, ground, drilled, or used in similar industrial processes, dust may be produced. Some of these dust particles are very fine – known as Respirable Crystalline Silica or RCS. If high quantities of this very fine dust are inhaled on a regular basis over many years, there is a risk that the cumulative impact can cause lung diseases.
Not all products containing crystalline silica generate RCS dust under these conditions, including glass and ceramics. However, high energy industrial processes involving raw materials like rock and unprocessed clay generally do.
We care about our employees and customers, which is why the producers of crystalline silica, producers of rocks and minerals which contain crystalline silica, and other industry sectors which use products containing crystalline silica, have taken steps to manage the risk to workers’ health. It’s also why legislation exists around RCS in the workplace, and the reasoning behind a recent update to the EU Directive on “Protection of workers from exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work”.
Health and safety is our number one priority. In 2005 the Industrial Minerals Association Europe joined with other industries where RCS is a risk, and Trade Unions representing workers, to develop good practices for protecting workers health. Together, we set up a body called the European Network for Silica (NEPSI), whose mandate is to share and provide guidance on these good practices, and encourage continual improvement of health and safety standards. This ensures that we, and other industries, have the tools needed to protect workers’ health by doing the right things – like minimising their exposure to RCS.
NEPSI was funded by the EU, and its good practices for managing RCS dust in industrial workplaces are freely available online. They give companies clear, easy-to-implement steps to protect the health of their employees. This includes practical advice on reducing the amount of RCS dust produced by industrial processes, and enhancing ventilation.
The NEPSI measures have already been implemented across the industrial minerals industry, and are really effective. So much so, that the EU Directive recognises the guidelines as being the benchmark to measure the success of workplace health and safety on RCS. And our industry is committed to ensuring that this remains the case.
RCS only poses a risk to those working in industrial workplaces. To the rest of us, RCS carries no risk – even to people working or living near quarries or industrial sites. The very fine dust does not travel beyond the direct environment of the industrial process, and disperses quickly in the open-air.
Today, industries producing and using crystalline silica have developed into an important economic contributor. Over 40,000 people are directly employed by the industrial minerals industry across EU, and the sector contributes almost 10bn Euros per year to the European GDP annually. And beyond the direct industry of producing products that contain crystalline silica, there is almost no industry which does not depend in some way on those products. They are truly indispensable.
In order to keep using and producing products which contain crystalline silica safely, we will continually seek new ways to improve the health and safety of our staff, and those working with crystalline silica in industrial processes in other sectors. Crystalline silica is a key product - both in terms of the things it is used for, and the jobs it supports. It is vital, and so is managing any risk to workers.
Updated July 2018)