What is silica dust?

silica dust large

Commonly found across a range of industries and produced by many different processes, silica dust poses a threat to the safety of workers if not handled correctly. We explore what silica dust is and why it’s so dangerous.

What Is Silica Dust?

Silica is a common mineral found in most rocks, sand and clay in varying amounts. For example, sandstone has 70-90% silica, granite has 20-45% and marble has as little as 2% silica.

Silica is widely found on construction sites, as it’s found across a wide variety of materials, including in other natural materials such as soil, sand and rock.

Silica dust is the dust that’s created by disturbing these materials through processes, including:

  • Cutting
  • Grinding
  • Sawing
  • Fettling
  • Polishing
  • Drilling

When silica particles are small enough to be inhaled, they are known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS). These particles can be breathed deep into the lungs, and often aren’t visible to the naked eye.

Silica dust affects industries like:

  • Construction
  • Brickmaking
  • Pottery and ceramics
  • Slate mining
  • Production of concrete

The Dangers Of Silica Dust

Having defined what silica dust is, it’s useful to understand the dangers of silica dust.

Respirable crystalline silica kills a number of workers in the UK each year – in fact, it’s the biggest health risk to construction industry workers after asbestos. RCS can lead to a range of long-term health issues and serious respiratory diseases, the first of which is silicosis.

What Conditions Can Silica Dust Cause?


Silicosis is the result of long-term exposure to RCS, and occurs when the RCS particles have accumulated over a long period of time and caused an inflammatory reaction in the lungs. It results in extreme shortness of breath, making regular breathing very difficult. Once silicosis is diagnosed, the symptoms are irreversible. Information on government standards for dust regulation can be found here.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Inhalation of silica dust can lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which covers several different lung conditions, all of which are the result of the airways being permanently narrowed. This can result in severe breathlessness, chronic disability and death.

Lung Cancer

Prolonged exposure to RCS can lead to lung cancer. Once silicosis has been diagnosed, there’s also an increased risk of developing lung cancer.


Exposure to construction dust in the form of RCS it can lead to asthma, the symptoms of which include difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest and coughing.

Are your employees exposed to the dangers of silica dust? We’ve explored what employers can do to protect their workplace from dust in a previous post.

If you have any questions regarding silica dust and its dangers, get in touch with us today.