Concrete cutting and drilling is by nature a dusty business. It can also be a risky one if precautions are not taken to minimize the amount of concrete dust floating around your jobsites.
Many types of concrete, masonry and other materials contain silica, a basic component of sand, quartz, brick clay, granite and other minerals and rocks, notes Adam Hanks, industrial product manager at STIHL Inc. Crystalline silica generated as dust during the cutting or drilling process can prove hazardous to the health of operators and other workers in the area.
"There are several risks involved when exposed to cement dust," says Mike Ward, product manager for Power Cutters, Husqvarna Construction Products. "These include irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and the upper respiratory system. Skin contact may result in moderate irritation, thickening/cracking of skin or severe skin damage from chemical burns.
"Severe injuries can result from the cutting of concrete, brick, block, rock and stone products due to the crystalline silica released into the air," he adds. "Inhalation of crystalline silica has been linked to lung injuries, including silicosis and lung cancer."
Excessive dust can be harmful to cutting equipment, as well. "Concrete dust is a very abrasive material that can cause significant wear to any equipment exposed to it," says Hanks. "Engine failure due to dirt ingestion is the worst-case scenario for gasoline-powered equipment. In this case, concrete dust bypasses the air filter system and is introduced into the engine cylinder, causing wear on the piston and cylinder, loss of compression and bearing failure. Another typical wear point on gasoline-powered equipment would be starter ropes and starter assemblies."
Even pneumatic-powered drills aren't immune to dust's effects. Concrete dust has a tendency to stick to moist surfaces, such as greased areas. "That then makes the grease become more of an abrasive paste than a lubricant, accelerating wear," says Todd Jurjevic, Minnich Mfg.
It can also harden on the machine if it gets wet. "If it rains, that concrete gets hard and then you have trouble with nuts and bolts, etc.," Randy Stevens, E-Z Drill, points out. "We do try to encourage [operators] to keep [drills] fairly clean so they can make all of the adjustments that they need to make." This includes blowing dust off with an air hose every day after use.
Other equipment in the vicinity can be affected by the dust, as well. "For instance, the air compressor that powers the drill can have issues with the dust in the filters and engines," Jurjevic indicates. "Once the dust settles, the next vehicle that drives over it stirs it back up and into its system."
More incentives to take control
In some applications, the risks extend beyond workers or equipment.
"I think everyone in the industry recognizes that silica dust is a health issue, but people do not always realize the other hazards caused by dust," says Jurjevic. "Think of a cloud blowing across a lane of traffic that is already out of the normal pattern because of the construction zone. Or the worker who has decreased visibility while trying to operate equipment on a congested construction site. Consider a machine covered in dust, making all of the warning labels hard to see, let alone read.
"We have actually sold more dust suppression equipment to prevent dust clouds crossing traffic lanes or active runways than for concerns of silica inhalation," he adds.
Indoor cutting or drilling is another scenario where concerns can extend to other aspects of the job. "When we first were getting calls about providing a dust collection system, most of the time it was because they were working in a confined space or indoors, where the dust would cause a lot of problems — not just for the operator, but it may have been in a warehouse where they had shelves full of parts and they didn't want dust covering everything," notes Stevens. "One particular application was in a parking garage, and they didn't want to have dust on [the cars]."