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NIOSH devises new FAST software for respirable crystalline silica monitoring

The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has launched a beta version of new software designed to help miners reduce their exposure to hazardous respirable crystalline silica (RCS).

The NIOSH Mining Program has devised the FAST (Field Analysis of Silica Tool) field-based tool to work with commercially-available FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared) analysers to determine a worker’s exposure to RCS dust, providing detailed results immediately following a worker’s shift.

NIOSH said: “Mineworkers face the danger of potential overexposure to RCS dust every day. Overexposure can lead to the development of diseases such as silicosis, lung cancer, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These diseases are disabling, irreversible and, potentially, fatal.”

Key to controlling RCS at mines is the ability to quickly assess the degree of exposure, according to NIOSH.

Traditional methods require mines to send samples to a commercial lab for analysis and wait for the results to be returned. Because the conditions in mines change constantly, however, immediate RCS results are needed to establish when and where high concentrations exist and to ensure that, when they do, they do not persist across shifts.

NIOSH Associate Director for Mining, Jessica Kogel said: “FAST provides a vital link for mines seeking better RCS monitoring tools by bringing the laboratory to the field.”

The FAST software is designed to work in concert with an easily implemented monitoring approach, also developed by NIOSH, which uses portable FTIR analysers and dust sampling cassettes at the mine site. The combination of all three allows mines to quickly address the source of the exposure by eliminating the wait time between collecting a sample and receiving the lab results, NIOSH says.

“Further, the monitoring approach does not degrade the dust sampling cassette, so mines can still send samples for lab testing to verify the RCS results if they wish.”

The results generated by FAST at the mine can be used immediately to identify high-exposure areas and associated work tasks, which helps mines both to stay within exposure compliance limits and to proactively protect the health of their workers.

NIOSH extensively lab tested the monitoring approach that works with the FAST software, then field tested the approach in the US and internationally, collecting dust samples in coal mines as well as samples from other types of mines. This testing led to the release of the beta version of the software to allow for further user feedback.

Future releases of FAST will offer improved accuracy for commodity types besides coal, and will also have the potential to be used beyond the mining industry, NIOSH said.