How to stop silicosis becoming the new asbestos

Posted on: 12 April 2018

By Andy Miller, technical loss control engineer manager

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is currently running a national campaign entitled 'Go home healthy' encouraging employers to take a closer look at their workplaces and employees to think about how they can affect change.

Health and safety regulation has helped to significantly reduce occupational disease. But the HSE estimate that 13,000 people die each year1 as a result of past exposure at work, primarily to chemicals or dust and insurers are monitoring this space closely.

Could silicosis be the next mesothelioma?

One occupational disease that is causing particular concern is silicosis. This is a long-term lung disease caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS), a substance found in most rocks, sands and clays, products such as bricks and concrete, and as filler in some plastics. Debilitating and irreversible, it can lead to respiratory failure but also increases the risk of other serious conditions including lung cancer, heart failure and kidney disease.

Currently, the number of reported cases is relatively low, with HSE figures2 pointing to between 10 and 20 deaths a year from silicosis and around 20 new cases annually. However, there are concerns the scale of the problem is masked behind other conditions. For example, an estimate from the HSE's occupational cancer burden study found there were around 600 deaths a year from lung cancer associated with exposure to RCS, of which 450 relate to the construction sector3.   

The dangers of exposure to RCS are well known. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) specify a workplace exposure limit (WEL) of 0.1mg/m³ averaged over eight hours.

Respirable crystalline silica particles are produced during many work tasks, including sandblasting, mining, quarrying, brick cutting, foundry work, stone working, ceramic manufacture and construction activities.

Robust risk management is essential, using the assess, control, review approach set out in the COSHH Regulations. Measures to reduce exposure will vary but could include using a less powerful tool, for instance a block splitter rather than a cut-off saw; using different materials; and ordering pre-cut materials.

Where exposure cannot be avoided, steps must be taken to control the risk. Water and on-tool extraction can minimise the dust in the air, while respiratory protective equipment, where fitted and worn correctly, can be a valuable last line of protection.

Looking overseas, further action to reduce the number of people affected by RCS may be necessary with these issues on the agenda for other health and safety agencies too. In 2016 in the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cut the permissible exposure limits by half, taking it down to 0.05mg/m³ averaged over an eight hour day.

Similarly, in South Africa, thousands of gold miners who contracted lung diseases at work are close to agreeing a silicosis compensation scheme with their employers following a class action lawsuit.  

Given these international developments, the UK may also look to take a tougher approach to reducing the risk of silicosis. And, as the full impact of exposure to RCS becomes known, it's hoped that this disease won't turn out to be the next mesothelioma.


This blog was originally published on Insurance Post's website. It may not be replicated in any other publications.