Objectives: This study sought to estimate the risk of silicosis by cumulative exposure-years in a cohort of miners exposed to silica, as well as the lifetime risk of silicosis under the current Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard (0.09 mg/m3).
Methods: In a cohort study of 3330 gold miners who worked at least 1 year underground from 1940 to 1965 (average 9 years) and were exposed to a median silica level of 0.05 mg/m3 (0.15 mg/m3 for those hired before 1930), 170 cases of silicosis were determined from either death certificates or two cross-sectional radiographic surveys.
Results: The risk of silicosis was less than 1% with a cumulative exposure under 0.5 mg/m3-years, increasing to 68% to 84% for the highest cumulative exposure category of more than 4 mg/m3-years. Cumulative exposure was the best predictor of disease, followed by duration of exposure and average exposure. After adjustment for competing risks of death, a 45-year exposure under the current OSHA standard would lead to a lifetime risk of silicosis of 35% to 47%.
Conclusions: Almost 2 million US workers are currently exposed to silica. Our results add to a small but increasing body of literature that suggests that the current OSHA silica exposure level is unacceptably high.