Silica Exposures from Agate Polishing

In India, processing of agate (a quartz rich mineral) used in jewellery and ornaments is a cottage industry that exposes workers and their families to fine silica dust. This increases their risk of developing silicosis, tuberculosis and cancer. Agate workers earn only a few dollars a day and often have to take on loans to buy equipment and supplies. The high respirable  quartz levels generated also often causes accelerated silicosis. Many agate workers conduct this work at home, putting their families and community at risk. This is especially true in the vicinity of Kambhat in Gujarat province where the National Institute for Occupational Health of India found the silicosis in 29.2% of surveyed workers and 11.0% in family members, compared to 6.8% of nearby community members in Khambat. 

Workplace Health Without Borders (WHWB) in collaboration with the University of Toronto and a local charity partner in Gujarat initiated the development of a toolkit of technical, social and business approaches to preventing occupational disease. This project employed locally sourced technical solutions that may be adapted to other industries and occupational diseases caused by dusts.

The project demonstrated that hygiene expertise combined with locally sourced materials can significantly reduce silica dust exposure in these settings.

With the high prevalence of disease, workers understand the connection between the polishing activity and disease, but their limited understanding of methods of control of the hazard and economic constraints limit effective solutions. It is clear that to prevent long-term health effects, risk reduction strategies must not impose costs that reduce prospects for the immediate survival of the worker’s family. A major goal for us was to develop low-cost, practicable controls that were sustainable, maintainable and an acceptable incremental change. We needed expertise on the ground in India to use our ideas and find skilled suppliers to build simple control systems locally. Continuity is necessary for sustaining change. It is better to build capacity to use and maintain hazard control technology until businesses see results from its implementation.