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Sandblasters Are at Special Risk

Often abrasive blasting with sands containing crystalline silica can cause serious or fatal respiratory disease.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studied 99 cases of silicosis from exposure to crystalline silica during sandblasting during the late 1990's. Of the 99 workers reported, 14 have died from the disease, and at the time of the study the remaining 85 were at risk of death from silicosis and its complications.

Description and Uses of Abrasive Blasting

Abrasive blasting involves forcefully projecting a stream of abrasive particles onto a surface, usually with compressed air or steam. Because silica sand is commonly used in this process, workers who perform abrasive blasting are often known as sandblasters. Tasks performed by sandblasters include the following:

Cleaning sand and irregularities from foundry castings
Cleaning and removing paint from ship hulls, stone buildings, metal bridges, and other metal surfaces finishing tombstones, etching or frosting glass, and performing certain artistic endeavors

When workers inhale the crystalline silica used in abrasive blasting, the lung tissue reacts by developing fibrotic nodules and scarring around the trapped silica particles. This fibrotic condition of the lung is called silicosis. If the nodules grow too large, breathing becomes difficult and death may result. Silicosis victims are also at high risk of developing active tuberculosis. More on the disease >>

The Silica sand used in abrasive blasting typically fractures into fine particles and becomes airborne. Inhalation of such silica appears to produce a more severe lung reaction than silica that is not freshly fractured. This factor may contribute to the development of acute and accelerated forms of silicosis among sandblasters.

Number of Exposed Workers

Of the more than 2 million U.S. workers are at risk of developing silicosis and that more than 100,000 of these workers are employed as sandblasters. Approximately 120,000 of the 2 million workers exposed to crystalline silica will eventually develop silicosis.

The disease has been know to affect as sandblasters for decades, a 1936 study in Great Britain found that 5.4% of a population of sandblasters (24 of 441) died from silicosis or silicosis with tuberculosis in a 3.5-year period.

Respiratory Protection Practices

Acute silicosis is less common today than it was in the 1930s because engineering controls are used to reduce exposure to respirable crystalline silica and because the use of alternative abrasives is increasing. However, data indicate that most abrasive blasters continue to work without adequate respiratory protection. In addition, workers adjacent to abrasive blasting operations (for example, painters, welders, and laborers) often wear no respiratory protection.

Ventilation controls for reducing crystalline silica exposures are not used in most industries. Studies have found that even in short-term sandblasting operations (less than 2 ? hours of blasting during an 8-hour workday), the average concentration of crystalline silica was 764 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), with an average silica content of 25.5%. This average dust concentration was twice the 1974 standard of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

In a 1974 study of respiratory protection practices during abrasive blasting, the protection factors for supplied-air respirators with helmets ranged from 1.9 to 3,750. This wide range was attributed to the varied conditions of the equipment rather than to the superiority of any brand. Maintenance was universally poor or nonexistent, and the persons responsible for selecting respiratory protection for abrasive blasting were inadequately informed about the proper use and maintenance of such equipment. The higher protection factors were associated with high rates of helmet air flow, but these high flow rates increased noise levels as a result of air turbulence. The study also indicated that the air inlets were too noisy and that the blasters' helmets tended to fall from the wearers' shoulders when they stooped.

Prohibition of Silica in Abrasive Blasting

Because of the high risk for silicosis in sandblasters and the difficulty in controlling exposures, the use of crystalline silica for blast cleaning operations was prohibited in Great Britain in 1950 [Factories Act 1949] and in other European countries in 1966. In 1974, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended that silica sand (or other substances containing more than 1% free silica) be prohibited as abrasive blasting material and that less hazardous materials be used in blasting operations.

Case Reports Among Sandblasters
Conducted by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

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