Ontario’s silica control tool

A free, user-friendly digital platform is now available to help construction firms assess and reduce the risks of workplace silica exposure.

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Silica is one of the most commonly occurring substances on earth. A basic component of sand, rock, and soil, it is found in many construction materials, including concrete, bricks, cement, and mortar. Cutting, breaking, grinding, and drilling these materials produces airborne silica dust, which, if inhaled, can cause significant lung damage.

A recent initiative, led by Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) and supported by IHSA, helps Ontario businesses reduce silica exposure. The Silica Control Tool (SCT) uses workplace-specific information plus aggregate data from construction sites across the province to determine the amount of silica produced by certain tasks. It then generates an action plan to control the hazard based on the particular needs of the jobsite.

Considering the construction industry’s reliance on numerous silica-containing materials, and the fact that more than 530,000 Ontarians work in the industry, employers must be proactive in assessing and mitigating risks.

“Prioritizing the Silica Control Tool’s implementation is a responsibility we owe to those who build our province,” says Jennifer McKenzie, Director of Stakeholder and Client Engagement at IHSA. “It’s not merely a regulatory measure, but a lifeline for worker health and safety and a commitment to fostering an environment where every worker can thrive without compromising their well-being.”

Silica’s significant risk

When you inhale high levels of silica, tiny crystalline particles enter your respiratory system and kill cells in the gas-exchange area of the lungs called the alveoli. These dead cells become scar tissue, which builds up and hinders your ability to breathe. Besides this irreversible condition, known as silicosis, Cancer Care Ontario notes that workplace silica exposure is linked to approximately 200 cases of lung cancer each year in the province. It can also play a role in the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, autoimmune disease, and kidney disease.

Despite awareness of silica as a hazard, Shirly Yan, Occupational Hygienist at OHCOW, says that the effects of silicosis are starting to show up in younger workers. This is likely due to the popular use of engineered stones in construction, which are 97 per cent silica.

“In the past, we used to think it took years to see the effect of silica exposure in a worker,” Yan said on a recent episode of the IHSA Safety Podcast. “Now we’re seeing it in workers as young as 27. The only way to treat silicosis is through a lung transplant. That would be a life-changing procedure.”

Easy hazard assessment

By better understanding exposure levels associated with silica dust-producing tasks, construction workplaces can implement more effective controls to reduce the risk placed on workers.

The Silica Control Tool helps to do both. It uses thousands of points of sampling data from Canadian construction jobsites to predict the silica exposure levels associated with particular tasks at your jobsite.

The web app, found at ontario.silicacontroltool.com, asks registered users to input details about their jobsite and planned work activities, and then provides an exposure level for tasks without any controls in place. If the exposure level is found to be above the allowable limit (0.05 milligrams per cubic metre of air), the tool will outline a series of controls and personal protective equipment options, and then recalculate the exposure level as if those controls were in place.

These controls may include:

  • Elimination or substitution of materials that do not contain silica.
  • Engineering controls like ventilation or using water to prevent silica dust from becoming airborne.
  • Administrative controls such as work-shift scheduling and training and education.
  • Personal protective equipment such as respiratory protection.

The SCT uses the data you’ve provided about your jobsite to create a tailored exposure control plan, which outlines the controls that can be put in place at your workplace—based on your needs and resources—to help keep silica exposure below allowable limits.

Awareness through education

Using the SCT is considered a best practice by Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training, and Skills Development, but it is not meant to replace professional advice or testing by an occupational hygienist. The tool is, however, a cost-effective and efficient way for workplaces to start determining whether they are putting their workers at risk. From there, specific tasks and areas of a project can be given more in-depth consideration.

Because the SCT synthesizes data on most construction tasks across many different types of jobsites, it can help raise awareness among employers and workers of the dangers of silica exposure. Knowing that a task will produce harmful silica dust, it becomes possible to eliminate or control the risk before work begins, which is always the best approach to preventing any serious occupational illness.

The SCT at a glance

Here’s how to get set up with the Silica Control Tool and use it to start controlling silica at your workplace.

STEP 1: Register for an account using your company name and WSIB account number.

STEP 2: Enter details about your specific jobsite and tasks.

STEP 3: The SCT calculates the silica exposure of each task without controls in place.

STEP 4: After you select possible controls for your jobsite, the Tool recalculates exposure levels if those controls were to be used.

STEP 5: The SCT provides you with a customized exposure control plan.

Visit ontario.silicacontroltool.com to use the SCT and learn more about controlling silica at your workplace.