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Crystalline Silica Alternatives – Making Sure the Solution doesn’t lead to Unintended Consequences

- December 4, 2017 by Glenn Ingraham MS CIH (View all posts by Glenn)

Crystalline Silica has been linked to serious and sometimes fatal chronic lung disease.  Safety agencies worldwide have moved to control exposure to this commonly found material by lowering exposure limits, and proposing alternatives to its use in industry.

For years, common sand has been used as an abrasive material in sandblasting.  Since sand contains crystalline silica, efforts to protect workers have resulted in the development of alternative blasting materials.  It’s common to see abrasive blasting being done using metal shot, glass beads, coal slag, dry ice, walnut shells, ground corncobs, and other materials.  These materials all differ in density and hardness, so the material selected depends on the type of blasting being done.  Some countries have even banned the use of sand in abrasive blasting.

Unexpected Consequences

Under most circumstances, these alternatives are less harmful to human health than common sand containing Silica.  However, as the recent death of a 33-year-old in Canada showed, these ‘less hazardous’ alternatives carry their own risks.  The victim was inspecting an area that was undergoing abrasive blasting with walnut shells/corncobs.  As a child, he had been diagnosed with a nut allergy and had been briefly hospitalized because of the allergy only once.  But less than a half hour after entering the site, he succumbed to anaphylactic shock; an extreme and life-threatening allergic reaction.  He died five days later.

The Importance of a Hazard Assessment

Not many people would recognize that walnut shells could be the agent of such a senseless tragedy.  That’s why a Hazard Assessment by a qualified team is so important.  That team may have concluded that when coarsely-ground walnut shells are blasted against a hard surface, they shatter and fragment, producing a micronized dust capable of penetrating deeply into the lungs.  Clearly, anyone with a nut allergy breathing that dust would be in serious trouble.

Dust control strategies such as providing a wet blasting method, or robust exhaust ventilation may have prevented that exposure.  But a sound hazard assessment of a task is the first and best step in understanding the range of safety and health challenges in that task, as well as the effectiveness and possible complications of the solutions we implement to solve those challenges.


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